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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 27-08-2021 23:20

Future tense or tense future?

Calling either the PASO primaries or the November midterms this year is tantamount to a mission impossible.

Perhaps this column should be dedicated to Charlie Watts but both my Liverpool birth and the Argentine focus of this newspaper argue against. So what else with the PASO primaries now only two weekends away?

The political agenda remains strangely frozen in something which happened over a year ago – namely the first lady’s birthday party in Olivos presidential residence in flagrant violation of quarantine strictures, which these days are being magically lifted to the extent of allowing spectators for the national   soccer squad’s presumed thrashing of continental underlings Bolivia just three days before the vote.

That match will hinge on various imponderables, including how many stars can be repatriated from Europe and the long anticipated advent of the Delta variant of coronavirus (strangely delayed not only here but throughout Latin America regardless of policy, perhaps because of the strong competition of such regional strains as Manaos and the Andean).

But the imponderables within any forecast of the September 12 PASO primaries are even more numerous and even those results will tell us little or nothing about the real thing – thus the PASO of 2015 had Daniel Scioli virtually anointed as president-elect with almost 40 percent of the vote, more than 14 percent ahead of Mauricio Macri with less than a quarter of votes, only for the real vote to dictate a different reality after this dress rehearsal.

Calling either the PASO primaries or the November midterms this year is tantamount to a mission impossible – the adverse economic context would seem to doom the Frente de Todos government to Kirchnerism’s third midterm defeat in a row and yet virtually every opinion poll is showing them a few percent ahead, both nationwide and in Buenos Aires Province (widely considered the decisive battlefield despite electing only 35 of the 127 deputies at stake).

Should that favourable outcome (which is unlikely to have sufficient steam to translate into an overall majority in Congress) come to pass, it would be strictly by default – the only certainty about the electorate’s mood after a horrendous pandemic year is a widespread disenchantment. This makes the decisive variable not so much how people vote as who will not be voting, whether the impact of a reduced turnout will be largely neutral or whether either the government or the opposition suffer the consequences. Only a fraction of the electorate will be casting their ballots with any illusion that this will be improving their future in any way – which does not necessarily mean that how they vote will not shape that future.

That sense of no future is most acute in the youngest voters (a huge majority of whom would rather be living somewhere else) – the potential loss of that captive vote is one of the biggest electoral problems facing a government no longer presenting a “won decade.” Both extremes of the political spectrum (both the libertarians personified by José Luis Espert or Javier Milei and the Trotskyists of the Left Front) stand to gain from their alienation and yet the opinion polls do not point to the polarisation between the two main coalitions being seriously challenged.

Having said all this, so much could change in the remaining fortnight before the PASO primaries (which in turn will decide nothing beyond weeding out the fringe candidates falling below the 1.5 percent threshold). A black swan could crop up, which would not have to depend on either the present or the future, as the first lady’s birthday party demonstrated. But nor has the government pulled out all the stops yet – printing around 200 billion pesos this month as against 3.5 billion only three months ago, this might well swing enough votes in the here and now, even if it accelerates an inflationary spiral which could torpedo government hopes in the far more important presidential elections in 2023. And even in the here and now this monetary splurge could do more to speed up the inflation eroding real wages than to recoup that erosion. 

Elections for which Alberto Fernández is being prematurely endorsed by various government figures for a second term – a prospect never arising before and at all odds with the way his credibility has been shattered by the recent scandals. He only seems to take one foot out of his mouth in order to stick the other one in – this week’s argument that quarantine violations are only an offence if they result in contagion is akin to considering drunken driving to be harmless if there is no accident.

These upcoming midterms stand to change everything or nothing. The most pessimistic scenarios could also be the most optimistic – the Argentine electorate finally turning its back on a dysfunctional politics and refounding the republic. But for that to happen, the country would need to hit rock bottom and if that did not happen in 2002 or last year (with Gross Domestic Product plunges of 10.9 percent and 9.9 percent respectively), when will it? But instead of transformation there could also be more of the same – the midterms could end up perpetuating gridlock with neither the dreaded destruction of institutions nor the long overdue structural reforms viable. Or there could be a backlash against continuation of an inept democracy with Argentina groping towards something akin to the Chinese model – embracing a more authoritarian regime while at the same time moving closer to a market economy with export-led rather than consumer-driven growth. Finally, the government could still win an election being blown up into a plebiscite, permitting it to fulfil all its populist dreams – overrunning the judiciary while confirming Argentina as an isolationist economy with import substitution, crony capitalism and all the rest of it.

All kinds of hopefuls banging their drums in this election campaign but none as well as Charlie Watts. Little or no reference in this column to the past but while past and present always intermesh, we would need more certainty as to which of the various future scenarios will come about in order to draw comparisons – if the past is another country, very much more so the future.

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Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.

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