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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 17-02-2024 06:00

Political deadlock threatens economic change

Unfortunately for President Milei, the political community he has joined has its own largely tacit rules which have little to do with economic efficiency.

Much as Javier Milei may dislike the idea, he is now a politician, the most prominent member of a “parasitical caste” he says he despises and wants to see replaced by something far better. Until a few months ago, he was only a trenchant television commentator who could insist he had nothing in common with the (in his view) unsavoury individuals who governed the country or sat in one of the many legislative bodies that have been set up, but that was before the citizenry – plus an array of what he says are celestial forces – asked him to lead them on a journey towards the promised land that awaits those who treat the markets with proper respect.

Unfortunately for the president, the political community he joined has its own largely tacit rules which have little to do with economic efficiency. Unless he masters them, his turn in the hot seat could be over well before he has a chance to bring about the radical changes he, and a great many other people, think the country desperately needs if it is to save itself from the unhappy fate towards which it has been drifting for many decades. This means he will have to learn to work with people he regularly describes as “thieves, bribe-mongers and crooks.” Some, perhaps many, of them fully deserve the epithets he flings at them, but there are surely plenty of honest men and women in parliament and elsewhere who would never dream of doing anything wrong and would very much like to see him succeed.

Some conspiratorially-minded folk think that Milei welcomed the defeat in the lower house of what was left of his ambitious “omnibus bill” because it reminded the population that “the political caste” was dead against reforms that would deprive its less scrupulous members of the clandestine sources of income they had come to rely on. His suspicions with regard to the motives of many who voted against bits of the bill look justifiable – while most said that they were broadly in favour of what he was trying to do, when it came to expressing their approval of specific details they decided it would not be in their interest to let them pass.

However, while there can be little doubt that most politicians tend to oppose measures that could cause them personal difficulties, refusing to make an effort to persuade them to put the national interest first is not really an option. Unlike the Peruvian Alberto Fujimori, who in 1992 closed Congress and for eight years ruled as a dictator, Milei simply does not have the hard power he would need to do the same. Even if most of the population supported such a move (and it would seem that a large proportion does share his contempt for the “political caste”), mobilising it would be anything but easy. Calling a non-binding plebiscite is an option which evidently appeals to him but, as many heads of state have found out to their cost, they can backfire badly. Perhaps some large-scale riots would allow him to bring forward the next round of legislative elections in which his supporters could conceivably win more seats than they currently occupy, but that too would require congressional approval and, in any event, it would be risky for him.

Much will depend on who gets the blame for the appalling economic mess that is ruining millions of lives. The Kirchnerites understand this very well. Even when in office, they went to considerable lengths to sabotage the economy they were managing because they assumed themselves to be capable of taking advantage of whatever harm they contrived to bring about. Along with their Trotskyite allies and a horde of opportunists, they have always made out that – because cutting public expenditure makes many people suffer – any government that refuses to print more money to keep things going must be downright evil. Until late last year, this tactic worked well enough; it was thanks to it that, despite losing many electoral contests, among them the one that gave Milei the Presidency, they avoided the total wipe-out that, in similar circumstances, their counterparts in most other countries would almost certainly have suffered. 

All of Milei’s predecessors in the Pink House, including Raúl Alfonsín, issued decrees when they were in a hurry and thought sending proposals to Congress would be too time-consuming. Though the situation in which the country finds itself today is far worse than it was before former economy minister Sergio Massa went on a wrecking spree, the political elite seems to have decided that enough is enough and all Milei’s proposals should be subjected to detailed parliamentary scrutiny. Not surprisingly, the fiercest defenders of such an approach are the Kirchnerites; for decades, they were only too happy to bypass the legislative branch of government whenever it suited them but, it would appear, they have now changed their mind and become fervent parliamentarians.
Milei’s own party is weak because it was formed before he suddenly emerged as a potential winner of the upcoming presidential elections, a possibility that not that long ago seemed almost as outlandish as the notion that Donald Trump could make it into the White House. Were legislative elections, with all the seats up for grabs, held tomorrow, his party would presumably become much stronger, but that is just speculation. For it to acquire more much-needed parliamentary muscle, it will have to seduce members of other groupings.

Something like this is already happening, what with Mauricio Macri’s PRO party showing a lively interest in a “fusion” with Milei’s La Libertad Avanza in order to create a new voting bloc. While this would not be sufficient to give Milei a majority in Congress, if many Radicals, Peronist dissidents and others decided that a well-structured pro-capitalist party could be the coming thing in Argentina and it would be worth their while to support it, he could turn the considerable backing he now enjoys into something more permanent. Such a party would also give a country which has for long lacked what elsewhere is a standard part of the political landscape: a force capable of overseeing the programme of structural reforms that much of the population knows is necessary but which, for a variety of reasons, the bulk of the “political caste” has always opposed.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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