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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 25-02-2022 13:55

The future of coalitions and the end of strong presidents

Macri will probably turn out to be the last president who tried – and in some measure succeeded – to exercise absolute power. And Alberto Fernández will probably be the first president of a saga where nobody will again exercise power as in the past.

Already at the start of this century, Swedish economists Kjell A. Nordström and Jonas Ridderstråle wrote Karaoke Capitalism: Managing for Mankind, in which they forecast that cheaper means of production would demolish the income barriers maintaining existing organisations in dominant positions, with the supply of everything growing faster than demand. “Karaoke” because many will be singing the same song (although in different versions) – their product or service. This can be seen most clearly in the current digital world – an OTT media service, an online service for urban transport, tourism, etc. makes a successful start and dozens of versions spring up.

This also happens with political parties, which like any organisation competing in the market economy compete for attention in a context of increasingly fragmented supply. That is why almost no single party can accumulate a sufficient critical mass of votes to win an election so that coalitions of parties are the electoral method which has come along to remedy parties being turned into “commodities.” It worked electorally in 2015 in Argentina with the PRO, the UCR Radicals and ARI in Cambiemos and it worked in 2019 with Kirchnerism, the PJ Peronists and the Renewal Front in Frente de Todos. But at the same time it did not work as a government for either Mauricio Macri or Alberto Fernández. In the case of Macri, because the Radicals felt sidelined and mistreated, a trend echoed today in Juntos por el Cambio, while for Alberto Fernández, being stalked in real or symbolic form by the figure of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner stripped away his capacity for executive decision-making.

If coalitions are the perennial form whereby representative democracy adapts itself to the conditions of the social possibilities of these times, the system of internal election within them and the distribution of power and government responsibilities after their triumph will also need to be adapted. The PASO primaries, for example, so useful in many senses, need to be adjusted to permit the presidential tickets to combine the candidates between the winning list and the runners-up with the former in the top half and the latter in the bottom in the different territories.

The same with the distribution of areas of government. Macri distributed consolation prizes to the Radicals while Alberto Fernández accepted that the minister of one wing of the coalition be seconded by the other wing, thus turning the latter into a political commissar preventing the actions of the former in whole or in part. Examples would be the former Justice minister Marcela Losardo and Justice Secretary Juan Martín Mena, or Economy Minister Martín Guzmán and his inconveniences with his Energy Secretary Federico Basualdo, with the ministers loyal to Alberto and their second-in-commands to Cristina.

The countries with the longest experience in coalition governments (Germany is the emblematic case) distribute executive responsibilities in complete areas, giving certain ministries to one coalition party or the other. That requires prior agreements to form governments, which in systems of presidential rather than parliamentary democracy must be done before the election.

One example would be Juntos por el Cambio, where the candidates of each party with the biggest possibilities of access to the presidential ticket, Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and Radical lawmaker Facundo Manes, have different profiles which, previously complemented, would maximise their attributes by turning their differences into advantages instead of cancelling each other out. A primary might be proposed whereby the winner runs for president and the runner-up for vice-president, but there could also be an executive veep with a series of areas (ministries) very specifically geared to his personal skills or his party’s ethos. Manes is the clearest example, due to his superior excellence in knowledge related to human development, which at the same time is modern-day Argentina’s big problem with most of impoverished youth, A kind of Domingo Sarmiento or Nicolás Avellaneda of the 21st century on whom would depend the Education, Health, Social Development, Science and Culture Ministries.

The United Nations produces an index which measures the evolution of the wealth of nations, formed by three components: natural resources, investment in infrastructure and the  human development of the population. You do not need to resort to the biopolitical notions of Michel Foucault to understand that the quality of human resources of a society determines the degree of economic development which it may reach.

But independently of this example, where the leadership of Facundo Manes in human development should be a capital which could be used even if Frente de Todos win, the important thing is always the system, which transcends the persons. No matter who wins in 2023, that president will not have the attributes of self-sufficiency which Macri, the Kirchner couple, Carlos Menem or Raúl Alfonsín had. Macri will probably turn out to be the last president who tried – and in some measure succeeded – to exercise absolute power. And Alberto Fernández will probably be the first president of a saga where nobody will again exercise power as in the past.

These weak presidents should be balanced by strong and institutionalised coalitions, with the rules as to the division of power and the access to it among themselves solidly established and with transparent pacts in the face of the society voting for them. Returning to the Swedes, Nordström and Ridderstråle (whom the president of the association of political consultants and Perfil columnist Carlos Fara often quotes): a supply exceeding demand inevitably weakens the suppliers but on the contrary, a monopoly and, to a lesser extent, a dominating position empowers them.

We live in an era of weak power and narratives where the means end up making the difference which the ideas cannot produce. Leaders like Cristina Fernández de Kirchner or Mauricio Macri will perhaps end up representing links to an era to which we cannot return – characterised by strong certainties, strong narratives and strong leaders.

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Jorge Fontevecchia

Jorge Fontevecchia

Cofundador de Editorial Perfil - CEO de Perfil Network.

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