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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 28-10-2023 04:14

The chameleon versus the dog-man

On Sunday, much of the electorate let Bullrich and her backers know that the last thing it wanted was a dose of realism, no matter how small, and sent her packing.

Before the year is out, Argentina will have a new president. Unless something unpleasant happens to one or both of them, either Sergio Massa or Javier Milei will soon take charge of a flat-broke country which is getting battered by an inflationary hurricane and many millions of people are sliding deeper into poverty. The tasks awaiting the proud winner of the electoral contest will certainly be herculean, but neither of the two who are left in the race is blessed with the supernatural powers that enabled the Greek hero to perform his many miracles.

Does this worry them? If it does, they are careful not to show it. Instead of warning folk that the worst has yet to come so they had better prepare themselves for the desperately hard times that are fast approaching, they make out that the country’s long ordeal is almost over. Of course, with the run-off just weeks away, they have to behave this way. As Patricia Bullrich found out, taking a rather more honest view of what lies ahead does not go down well with voters; on Sunday, much of the electorate let her and her backers know that the last thing it wanted was a dose of realism, no matter how small, and sent her packing.

As a result, the country is left with a choice between a famously dodgy chameleon who has spent the last year doing his best to wreck what was an already rickety economy and a man who says he takes advice from cloned dogs and boasts of his willingness to blow up the now empty Central Bank and apply a chainsaw to public spending. Neither seems to possess the qualities – a blend of charisma, administrative efficiency, clarity of vision and straightforward common sense – that a ruler capable of bringing an end to Argentina’s long decline would surely need.

Without such an exceptional person, if one exists, in the driving-seat, the country will continue to careen downhill at an increasingly rapid pace until an understandably distraught populace decides that enough is enough and boots out whoever happens to be in Pink House, as it did, in far less dire circumstances, a couple of decades ago to put an end to Fernando de la Rúa’s term in office.

These days, politicians just about everywhere live in a world of their own, one in which their place in the local hierarchy matters more than anything else. Having decided that many big problems are intractable, they spend their time trying to ingratiate themselves with the general public. This is certainly true in Argentina. Here, the gap that has opened between the self-obsessed “political caste” and the rest gave Milei the emotional fuel that allowed him to come from nowhere and, for a brief period, look certain to win the Presidency, but when he took to consorting with prominent representatives of the breed he said he despised, such as the restaurant-workers’ union boss Luis Barrionuevo, he started losing support. If he does manage to recover, it will not be due to any faith in his ability to solve the country’s many problems but to a widespread desire to send the Kirchnerites packing.

As far as much of the foreign press is concerned, Milei is an extreme right-winger and Massa a man of the left. While the “libertarian” does not mind this and likes going on about his fondness for Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro – as well as staging campaign rallies in which flashing lights, rock music and ranting speeches combine to make a psychedelic Nuremberg – he has created for himself a magic universe in which his canine children incarnate deceased economists and he has a private line to the Almighty. While many other politicians enjoy drawing attention to their alleged piety, nobody questions their sanity because they do it in the approved traditional way.

Needless to say, Milei’s antics do not make his opponent a leftist. While Massa has never allowed himself to be tied down by principles, he appears to be well to the right of most other Argentine politicians, let alone their counterparts in Europe, which is why, for the primaries, the Kirchnerites fielded a bombastic social justice warrior whose mission was to scoop up the votes of left-leaning “militants” who felt offended by Massa’s evidently neoliberal instincts.

Massa’s chief asset is his lack of firm convictions. Along with Groucho Marx, he can say “these are my principles and, if you don’t like them, I have others.” Such flexibility allows him to adapt to changing circumstances without missing a beat. While electioneering, he has behaved like a spendthrift demagogue who happily dishes out fabulous amounts of freshly-printed banknotes to a grateful populace: once in office, he can be expected to be every bit as tight-fisted as Bullrich would have been. After all, he is as aware as anyone else that, unless he makes fiscal responsibility one of his watchwords, Argentina could quickly sink into utter chaos, taking him down with her. That would never do.

The possibility, some say the likelihood, that Massa could soon put on the presidential sash must have come as a disagreeable surprise to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner who, along with many others, had taken it for granted that he would lose to either the mad libertarian or whoever represented Mauricio Macri’s coalition. That no doubt was why the Kirchnerites encouraged him to go on a wild spending spree that would enable him to present the next government with an economic bomb timed to explode at any moment and, by destroying it, give them a chance of returning to power. Now, the Kirchnerites are faced with the prospect that a fellow Peronist will somehow have to try and dismantle the bomb that, with their enthusiastic collaboration, he has primed so it is ready to go off.

As many have pointed out, such an outcome would be poetic justice but, unfortunately, the damage would not be limited to president Massa, should he, as many expect, win the run-off scheduled for November 19. It would also ruin the lives of a great many others. Though it could be argued that millions of men and women share responsible for the disaster the country is already suffering because time and time again they have voted for the corrupt incompetents who have brought Argentina to where she is today, democracy cannot function properly unless most politicians do their best to look after the long-term interests of their compatriots rather than promising them instant gratification in exchange for votes. By failing the way they have, the country’s leading politicians have struck a savage blow against democracy, one which, unless we are very lucky, could weaken it enough to allow the out-and-out authoritarians to come marching back.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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