Professional politicians like to make out that they are self-sacrificing men and women who are moved by an irresistible urge to make life better for their fellow citizens. Some may even believe this, but most soon learn that – while youthful idealism may have its value – it would be foolish to let it distract them from things that really matter such as their own place in the scheme of things. In all parts of the world, politics has always been a highly competitive business whose practitioners do their best to trip up their rivals. Many take it for granted that low cunning is better than honesty and loyalty is for the birds; as Harry Truman once famously said: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”
Politicians have always been distrusted by the people they rule. Athenian satirists like Aristophanes were certainly not the first to see them as a bunch of shifty rogues. This is just as well; were all politicians the fine upstanding citizens so many pretend to be, the public would quickly lose all interest in their activities. Cutthroat infighting helps give democratic politics the drama needed to keep it alive, but too much can discredit it to such an extent that people start demanding something radically different. On occasion they get it and have to suffer the consequences.
In some countries, there are political parties which have been around for so long, and look so solid, that they have become part of the landscape, and mid-level members – like their counterparts in the civil service – tend to be satisfied with their lot and settle down to work as best they can. In others, most parties are fairly recent creations or, if they were founded many years ago, have frequently split into mutually hostile factions and are therefore liable to do so again. This is certainly the case in Argentina, where everything is in constant flux; there are dozens of parties and, as the leaders of one of the most promising, PRO, or Propuesta Republicana (“Republican Proposal”) have just realised, keeping them together can be extremely difficult.
PRO, which in effect ruled the country in alliance with the Unión Cívica Radical (which to the chagrin of its members was the junior partner) when Mauricio Macri was in the Pink House, is embroiled in a conflict between its founder, the former president, and the current mayor of Buenos Aires City, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, who until late last year was the hot favourite to win the forthcoming elections for the top job. At first sight, the quarrel is over a technical matter, with Macri wanting his cousin, Jorge Macri – who hopes to become the next mayor – on a list headed by the coalition’s presidential candidate, who in theory would help those under him, while Rodríguez Larreta insists that, though the municipal and national elections should be held on the same day, they should be kept completely separate. Macri fears this could be enough to allow a Radical, Martin Lousteau, to beat his cousin Jorge Macri, thereby depriving PRO of its only real political bastion.
However, there is more at stake here than the possible impact of Rodríguez Larreta’s ploy regarding the future of Argentina’s only serious centre-right party. The Juntos por el Cambio coalition is divided over what to do if – as until quite recently was generally expected – it strolls to victory in the elections.
There are those who, after taking into account the huge dimensions of the challenge the next government will face, think it will have to go in with all guns blazing and take a tough approach not just to corruption and law and order but also to public spending, which for years has been out of control. This is clearly what Patricia Bullrich, who is moving upwards in the polls, and Macri have in mind. For his part, Rodríguez Larreta (along with most Radicals, including Lousteau), evidently favours a softer approach and would like to have many Peronists, and even some Kirchnerites, on board. Unfortunately for him, his conciliatory rhetoric has made many people suspect that, unlike Bullrich, he lacks the backbone a genuinely reformist president would need, which is why support for him is wilting.
Watching all this with growing concern and some contempt is the general public. For many, the set-to only shows that politicians of all stripes are far more interested in their internecine disputes than in the fate of the country they are in charge of, and that, as the libertarian deputy and presidential candidate Javier Milei loudly insists, they belong to a parasitical “caste,” which has grown used to extracting large sums of money from the rest of the population without giving anything worthwhile in exchange. To back this up, people like Milei can point to the blatantly corrupt behaviour of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her accomplices, the well-paid public jobs held by incompetent La Cámpora “militants,” the political institutions which cost the taxpayer far more than do their equivalents in North America or Europe and the Radicals’ notorious obsession with increasing their share of political appointments.
Needless to say, the deepening economic crisis has not persuaded politicians that they should reduce the amount of money they need in order to go about their business in what they consider to be a decorous fashion. On the contrary, as awareness that life is getting desperately hard out there seeps in, many feel they have little choice but to give priority to the material interests of those who are associated with them and whose help they need. As a result, the “caste” Milei rails against is getting greedier. For relatively enterprising younger people, politics seem to offer far more attractive prospects, with job security and a decent income, than any other activity, which is why those in government are defying economic logic by caving in to pressures to increase the number of jobs in the public sector.
Between 1930 and 1983, the armed forces were widely regarded as a valid alternative to the “civilian” political class which all too often had proved incapable of providing Argentina with a coherent government. Many politicians shared this view and felt relieved when a general rode in and promised to clear up the mess whoever was in office had contrived to bring about. Though nobody now thinks that in a crisis the military should take charge – something that these days few, if any, senior officers would be willing to contemplate for a moment – mental habits that were acquired when they regularly did just that still persist and too many politicians overlook the fact that the safety net they once relied on is no longer there. This means that, unless Argentina gets a genuine government before the year is out, there will be nothing left standing between her and what could be a truly cataclysmic disaster.