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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 08-04-2023 06:29

Politicians playing with fire

Much of the population is in a very angry mood. Unless the authorities do more to deter criminals, many more politicians could get roughed up whenever they venture into unfriendly territory.

Once upon a time, monarchs assumed that, seeing as they ruled by divine right, anyone who objected to their arbitrary behaviour was at war with the natural order of things and should be treated accordingly. In their way, Communists and other totalitarians have always taken a similar view as, it would appear, do Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her friends. Ever since a court sentenced her to six years in jail for skimming off a huge amount of money earmarked for public works, they have been telling us that – since she has been banned from running for president – the next government will be illegitimate unless she supports it.

Many say such talk is nonsensical because, until that sentence gets finally confirmed – presumably by the Supreme Court after it has spent several years mulling it over – there will be nothing, apart from an increasingly hostile electorate, to prevent her from returning to the Pink House. This may be clear enough, but many Kirchnerites have already taken to questioning the democratic legitimacy of any future government led by some opposition figure. Their evident aim is to justify an all-out onslaught against it as soon as it gets down to work. They will insist it has no more right to wield power than the military dictatorships did, of which, they will claim, it is a direct descendent as, in their view, was the one led by Mauricio Macri they replaced over three years ago.

This way of thinking is behind the quite extraordinary reaction from Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof to the murder of a bus driver by a youthful thug in La Matanza and the ensuing attack by an irate mob of transport workers on his provincial security minister, Sergio Berni, who could well have ended up dead had he not been rescued by the Buenos Aires City police. According to Kicillof, both the murder and the near lynching of Berni had in all probability been ordered by a well-placed presidential candidate, Patricia Bullrich, and other members of PRO, the party formed by Macri of which she is the titular head.

In other words, he thinks, or pretends to think, that the opposition is fully capable of resorting to extreme violence to make things harder for him and for the inhabitants of the enormous, crime-ridden slum belt he is in charge of, the message being that this should disqualify it from ever holding office. As for Berni, instead of thanking the Buenos Aires City police force for saving his life, he accused them of “kidnapping” him. He did not bother to explain just why they would want to do this.

Such statements by senior members of the Buenos Aires Province administration may seem outlandish to those who think that, far from being a gangster-like organisation, PRO is a party which prides itself on its reverence for the law and which, by and large, has always done its best to live up to its pretensions in this regard. As for Bullrich, though it is true that she once did get herself involved in urban guerrilla warfare having been very close, if not exactly a card-carrying member, of the Montoneros, she evidently left all that behind her many years ago. In her present incarnation, in addition to being something of a fiscal hawk, she is a stickler for law and order. As well as their awareness that she understands better than most what goes on in their minds, this gives the Kirchnerites good reasons to fear her.

While only true believers in Cristina’s right to rule Argentina for the rest of her days will take Kicillof's accusations seriously, this does not mean they can be brushed off as the wild ravings of a leftist ideologue who has shown himself to be incapable of confronting the tidal wave of criminality which is sweeping through the poorest parts of the region over which he governs, terrorising its inhabits who, as many point out, fear they could be killed whenever they leave their homes.

Along with other Kirchnerites, Kicillof is positioning himself to take advantage of the problems people like him have done their utmost to provoke. They have always done this by blaming them on someone else, whether on “the world,” the United States and the International Monetary Fund (as Cristina often did) or, nearer at home, on the “oligarchy,” the bourgeoisie, neoliberal economists, the snooty inhabitants of the Federal Capital and, needless to say, the reactionaries who, had he not stepped down, would surely have voted for that despicable right-wing extremist Macri.

For many years, harnessing the resentment millions feel towards what they see as the national elite proved enough to prevent Peronism, of which Kirchnerism is a variant on steroids, from sharing the fate of other populist movements in Latin America which, after enjoying a few years of splendour, simply faded away. However, notwithstanding its remarkable survival skills, the great Argentine crisis Peronism has done so much to provoke now threatens to bring it down. Not surprisingly, many Kirchnerite leaders – especially those like Cristina who have good reasons to fear the law – have become prone to fits of panic and are lashing out furiously in all directions in a desperate attempt to rally the troops before it is too late.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Axel Kicillof and the rest hope against hope that somehow or other they will manage to keep the lid on the pressure cooker until the elections, which they fully expect to lose, are over. Then, after a short period of relative calm, they can help take it off and enjoy the results, secure in the knowledge that others will have to try and douse the flames.

What happened last week warned them that they had better get the timing right. Much of the population is in a very angry mood. Unless the authorities do more, much more, to deter criminals who are willing to kill anyone who crosses their path in order to get their hands on something, usually a mobile phone, they can exchange for drug money, many more politicians could get roughed up unless they are surrounded by armed bodyguards whenever they venture into unfriendly territory. If this were to happen, as it well could, some would escape with their lives, as did Berni after he made the mistake of trying to persuade understandably irate people that, despite appearances, he was on their side. Others could be less fortunate; Argentina runs the risk of becoming as dangerous a place for politicians and anyone else in the public eye as she was in the 1970s, that ”low dishonest decade” Cristina remembers as a golden age to which she would dearly like to return.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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