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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 11-08-2023 07:20

Electioneering has become a way of life

For most of the rest of the year almost all politicians are preoccupied with electioneering than with anything else even though the country is cart-wheeling towards a monumental disaster.

Politicians love election campaigns. In addition to appealing to their sporting instincts, they provide them with an excuse to take time off from other duties such as attending boring parliamentary sessions or, worse still, trying to run a municipality, province or the entire country, and instead go about telling people that deep down they are far more kind-hearted, trustworthy and efficient than any of their rivals. In Argentina, another benefit is that it has long been accepted that, when out there looking for votes, politicians are entitled to say or do just about anything. Eduardo Duhalde, the Peronist who served as president after Fernando de la Rúa was ousted in what some describe as a “civilian coup,” once remarked that no greater liar could be found than a politician on the campaign trail.

A favourite trick is to hand out stuff to potential voters a week or so before the polling booths open and promise them that there will be much more to come if the results turn out to be satisfactory. In Buenos Aires Province they are doing this with a vengeance, what with Peronist candidates, their pockets filled with freshly printed banknotes sent to them by the national government which desperately wants Axel Kiciloff to remain in office, boasting they have given hundreds of bikes to local school kids. To ram the message home, they place paid advertisements drawing attention to their largesse in Internet versions of not just Argentine but also foreign newspapers and magazines though, needless to say, they will only reach people who happen to be in the district they hope to influence. Nonetheless, it is a bit disconcerting for those seeking to get away from Argentine electioneering to see their benevolently grinning faces appearing on the web pages of The Guardian, El País, Yomiuri Shimbun and, presumably, thousands of other publications based in distant parts of the world.

While democracy is inconceivable without periodic elections, it loses its lustre when there are too many of them. In Argentina and, for that matter, the United States, politicians now spend much of their time on the hustings where they do their utmost to persuade people to vote for them or for their boss. This may be enjoyable for those individuals whose natural habitat is the world of politics, but as far as most others are concerned, it soon begins to pall. Though they recognise that now and then the citizenry needs to be given a chance to boot out office-holders who are not up to scratch and replace them with a different lot, they would much prefer campaigns to be fairly short so those who are finally elected can show they are capable of doing a better job than their defeated opponents. 

Hard as it no doubt is for many politicians to understand, these days their efforts to sell themselves are not meeting with that much success. In many countries, a steadily increasing number of their compatriots are so unimpressed by what they are up to that, having decided that they are all equally bad, they are boycotting the polling booths. As for those who are still willing to vote, they surely agree that professional politicians should spend far less time campaigning and far more doing what elected officials are supposed to do and strive to make life better for their constituents.

In Argentina, their failure in this respect is all too evident. If the country had a proper civil service, the tendency of politicians to devote themselves to campaigning would not matter much, but many, perhaps most, of the men and women in the public sector have been put there for blatantly political reasons and are expected to help out when elections are approaching. Not surprisingly, many show little interest in doing anything else.

Tomorrow, the opening phase of the country’s long electoral season will come to an end, but it will immediately be followed by another, which promises to be even more frenetic, lasting a couple of months or even three if there is no clear winner in October. This means that for most of the rest of the year almost all politicians will be far more preoccupied with electioneering than with anything else even though the country, which is flat-broke and getting beaten into a pulp by hurricane-force inflation, is cart-wheeling towards a monumental disaster which threatens to be worse than the one that did so much damage almost a quarter of a century ago.

Much will depend on what happens tomorrow. To bring about an immediate change, the ruling coalition would have to suffer a defeat so painful that it would simply call it quits and beg the opposition to take over. Needless to say, this is highly unlikely to happen. Most observers think that, despite the dire state of the economy, the Kirchnerites and their allies will do well enough to continue going through the motions of governing for a while during which they will continue to set booby traps for their eventual successors in the hope that in their turn they will be overwhelmed by the problems they will have to face.

The Kirchnerite game plan is based on the assumption that a “right-wing” government, led by either the fearsome Patricia Bullrich or the relatively less alarming Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, is bound to fail so miserably that a distraught populace, urged on by La Cámpora activists and an assortment of social justice warriors, will rise in rebellion and beg for things to return to what hereabouts is regarded as normal. If the country’s recent history is any guide, something like that could easily happen.

Opposition leaders see a different future lying ahead. They are doing their utmost to convince themselves that at long last most Argentines have come to the conclusion that Peronism should be consigned to the knackers’ yard so the country can make a genuine effort to recover from the decades of misrule that have taken it to where it is today. Are they over-optimistic? Perhaps, but unless whoever emerges victorious from the electoral scrimmage is able to do whatever is needed to make the most of the many assets Argentina still possesses without destroying too many livelihoods while he or she is about it, the country’s future will be even worse than the present.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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