It’s important to remember that we are in the final stretch of an important election in Argentina. Since that fateful day last month, in which the leading opposition coalition, Juntos, took home an unexpected and outsized victory in the PASO primaries, candidates for both of the major political groupings in the country have all but disappeared. Hostilities between the parties have ceased and campaign proposals — which were practically inexistent during the first part of the campaign — seem to have been archived permanently. Even the garrulous Javier Miliei, whose primary results and recent polls put in a good position ahead of the real election, seems to have turned it down a notch. The cataclysm sparked by the portentous result that brought the ruling coalition, Frente de Todos, to the precipice seems to have sucked the air out of the political arena. The showdown between President Alberto Fernández and his supposed deputy, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, soaked up all of the energy surrounding it, much like what is thought to occur after an object passes through a black hole’s event horizon. And as the political actors attempt to adjust to this reconfiguration of the power relations in the field of play, the government’s response to win back the disillusioned electorate is the so-called “plan platita,” a house special that roughly translates to “putting money in people’s pockets.”
In a caricature of himself, Daniel Gollán — number two on the Peronist ticket in all-important Buenos Aires Province and its health minister before resigning to become a candidate — recreated a supposed conversation with a citizen in a recent campaign event where he asked whether their problem had been scandals like the VIP vaccinations and First Lady Fabiola Yáñez’s clandestine birthday party in the presidential residence in Olivos during the lockdown. “The pictures did bother us, of course,” Gollán related, acting out the conversation, “but in the [humble] neighbourhoods those pictures, with a little more money in people’s pockets, wouldn’t have bothered us so much.” Gollán used the diminutive of money, “platita,” which immediately brought to the fore the idea that poor people can simply be bought with a few more pesos. It’s not just the association with clientelism that sparked outrage, but of a lack of social sensibility, causing some of Cristina’s strongest supporters to come out against the concept. Juan Grabois, the controversial social leader close to Pope Francis, summed it up in a recent interview with Perfil: “I don’t like this idea of putting money in people’s pockets. It’s cocky even. No-one wants someone to just put money in their pocket. The feeling the people have is that money is being taken from their pocket. Our people, the most humble people, they want to earn it working or for their work to be recognised. Not for someone to come and claim they are giving them money.”
An experienced former national deputy generally aligned with Peronist ideals recently told me that Fernández de Kirchner “pulled out the politics textbook” after the major defeat in the primaries. The cabinet shake-up was a must, as was a strategic power shift, bringing back the traditional elements of the Peronist party in order to shore up the results. In Buenos Aires Province – the “mother of all battles” – as it is known, CFK humiliated governor Axel Kicillof (up until recently, his favourite) by forcing him to take Lomás de Zamora mayor Martín Insaurralde as his Cabinet chief. Rather than trying to colonise the province through Kirchnerite La Cámpora political youth organisation, they are now retreating and passing the baton to the so-called ‘Conurbano Barons,’ the political dynasties that have politically hegemonised one of largest and poorest urban areas in the country (and possibly the continent). At a national level, Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner claims to have been the intellectual author of bringing a former arch-enemy from Tucumán to Buenos Aires to act as cabinet chief: Juan Manzúr. Her former health minister, Manzur was one of the first to align himself with Alberto Fernández and proclaim the end of the Kirchnerite cycle. He’s also an anti-abortionist with strong ties with the Organisation of American States and the United States, which hits at the heart of the hardcore Kirchnerist vote.
This level of pragmatism appears to go hand-in-hand with the second part of the traditional “politics textbook” recipe in Argentina: spend more money. Fernández de Kirchner was explicit in her letter to the president in explaining why she had a fit and forced Kirchnerite Cabinet members to tender their resignations, in order to force Alberto’s hand (“a necessary move, Alberto wouldn’t react,” my source suggested). Noting she phoned Economy Minister Martín Guzmán to tell him she didn’t want his head on a plate, she “proposed” spending more. Her math suggests Guzmán’s own budget indicated the fiscal deficit should reach 4.1 percent of GDP, meaning there’s about one trillion pesos left to spend before the end of the year. She suggests it’s not a “crazy or radicalised” proposal, but rather the same thing the United States and Europe are doing.
With Manzur in charge in the Casa Rosada and Insaurralde in the Province, Frente de Todos will put out all the stops to, as they see it, win back disillusioned voters in Peronist strongholds that didn’t go out to vote. They will spend aggressively to target the most important districts in Buenos Aires and other key provinces, and look to regain a few percentage points to shorten the opposition’s lead as the battle lines are drawn for 2023. Expectant, the opposition currently led by Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and the growing presence of former president Mauricio Macri, will tread carefully, looking to allow the Frente de Todos to continue its string of unforced errors in order to strip it of key legislative power, particularly in the Senate.
Unfortunately, this political game is at the expense of the people, particularly those in the bottom of the social pyramid. This spending spree will inevitably feed greater deficits and inflation this year and in the future, while the post-electoral correction will only be larger. And it’s not just a Kirchnerite ploy either – the surge in spending in electoral years has been consistent for about a decade, with the Macri administration happily partaking and lining us up for the 2018 implosion that accelerated this latest cycle of decline. There’s a small glimmer of hope: with balanced forces in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, the two largest coalitions have an opportunity to negotiate and collaborate in order to lift the country out of this mess. Or then again, it could just be more gridlock.