Unless plenty of money suddenly becomes available, Argentina will soon tumble over the economic precipice towards which she has been rushing at an accelerating pace for well over a year. In his efforts to get elected, Sergio Massa has squandered a large chunk of an already depleted gross national product – this means that if he wins the prize he so desperately wants, he will find himself in charge of a country that, thanks largely to him, is even more broke than it was before the ridiculously long election campaign that is now approaching its end got into high gear. Just what will happen when people find their incomes evaporating, inflation running amok and unemployment rising fast as companies starved of the inputs they need slam their doors shut, is something few want to think about. It is unlikely to be pleasant.
Massa has been such a dreadful economy minister not because he is uncommonly stupid – he is not – but because he knew that if he handled the country’s finances in a sensible fashion, he would be blamed for the immediate consequences; austerity may go down well in some parts of the world, but Argentina is not one of them. Even so, many people think that Javier Milei would be even worse than the man who put inflation on steroids.
The panic they feel is understandable: Milei first came into the limelight by telling television-viewers he was a specialist in tantric sex with a taste for threesomes, and then it became known that he talks to his cloned dogs who give him sage advice. As for his political programme, he says that in addition to reducing public spending by a whopping 15 percent, blowing up the Central Bank and replacing the “excremental” peso by the clean US dollar, he aims to boot out much of the “political caste” which according to him, and a fair number of others, is a collection of thieving parasites.
Why, then, did Mauricio Macri who, despite being underrated by many of his compatriots, has shown himself to be a very shrewd political operator, decide to throw in his lot with a certifiable nutcase? One reason is his contempt for Massa, a man he thinks is as slippery, and as ruthless, as a mafia boss. Another, presumably the main one, is his belief that he can take advantage of Milei’s lack of organised political support and make good use of his passionate attachment to free-market economics. What started off as a one-man challenge to a failed political establishment has attracted a large number of second-rate opportunists who want to share in the spoils, but the chances of them forming a viable government for any country – let alone one facing a catastrophe as appalling as the one which has destroyed Venezuela – could hardly be slighter. With this in mind, the takeover bid Macri launched immediately after Patricia Bullrich got eliminated from the presidential race, as he evidently had expected, makes sense.
Macri is by no means the only person who thinks Argentina is where she is today because, for over a century, she has let herself be swept by wave after wave of myopic populism. While in what is now “the developed world,” conservatives and democratic socialists long alternated in power, here the landscape came to be dominated by amorphous movements, first the one formed by Radicals who were led for many years by the barely intelligible Hipólito Yrigoyen who, among other things, greatly enjoyed lecturing foreign leaders such as former US president Herbert Hoover, on their moral shortcomings, and later by the Peronists, who were spawned by a pro-Axis military dictatorship but, as time went by, managed to put some distance between themselves and their fascistic origins. However, unlike the Radicals, the Peronists have never really got over the notion that they have been destined to represent all decent Argentines and not just a certain number of them. That is why they still insist they belong to a “movement” and not just a “party.”
Macri, and those most associated with him, think that Argentina’s slide downhill began over a century ago when the local equivalent of conservatism got sidelined. Though it did make something of a comeback under the Presidency of the Radical leader Marcelo de Alvear, a cultivated man who had no time for Yrigoyen’s often nonsensical pronouncements, it quickly faded away and its remnants were reduced to making pacts with military coup-mongers, a habit which, naturally enough, discredited not only those involved but also their way of thinking.
This deprived the country of a force that elsewhere, along with broad-based leftist parties, would play a vital role in democratic societies by, among other things, opposing overhasty and often ill-thought-out attempts to satisfy the demands of those who wanted a bigger share of the available wealth but had little interest in encouraging the production of more of it.
Strangely enough, Massa, who started his political life as a supporter of the late Álvaro Alsogaray – who for many years could claim to be the country’s leading exponent of the economic liberalism modern conservatives tend to favour – may well agree with his arch-foe Macri that what Argentina needs right now is a pragmatic centre-right government. The trouble is that, to climb further up the slippery pole, four years ago Massa made common cause with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her friends; until the elections are over and done with, he is stuck with them. Will he then stab them in the back? Being the man he is, he would do so without blinking an eyelid if he thought it was in his interest, but circumstances being what they are, it is probable that, for a while at least, he will do his best to keep them on board.
Were Argentine politics more like those of the main English-speaking countries, they would be dominated by two big parties that resemble coalitions: a conservative one much like Macri’s creation, PRO, and a centre-left one led by individuals of moderately progressive inclinations such as Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, Elisa Carrió and the Radicals. In other words, the groups that came together to form Juntos por el Cambio in order to halt the Kirchnerites in their tracks would call almost all the shots. However, as has recently been hammered home by the electorate, in Argentina what elsewhere passes for political normality only appeals to a minority, with the rest either clinging to the old populist religion or enthusiastically embracing a newfangled rock-concert variant which, if applied, would be even more destructive.