Carlos Menem once said that no pope could happily go back to being a mere bishop, by which he meant that after having reached the summit, he at least would find it demeaning to settle for a less lofty place in the political hierarchy. Though many share his point of view, Menem himself, as well as Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, went on after having served as president to become senators, not just because both needed the protection parliamentary privileges would give them but also because they hoped to continue to be influential figures.
Unlike Menem, Cristina got what she wanted. Until quite recently, she managed to wield far more power than Alberto Fernández, the man she made president. Despite suffering many setbacks, she still plays a key role in the nation’s political drama. Just how long she will be able to do this is anyone’s guess; her charisma is fading, while her inability to say exactly what she stands for is upsetting supporters who are willing to overlook her contempt for old-fashioned moral standards, thou shalt not steal and so on, but would like to be told where the movement she leads is taking them.
And Mauricio Macri? Now that he has made public his decision to sit out the next presidential elections, his friends, enemies and the many whose opinions about him are mixed are asking those close to him what he intends to do in the coming months and years. If so inclined, he could pursue a career on the international circuit, where his personal reputation has not been affected in the slightest by the crude insults hurled at him by Kirchnerites who blame him for all the country’s many woes. This is something few other Argentine politicians, most of whom know little English, would be capable of embarking on, but it would seem that he would much rather concentrate on local affairs.
Macri apparently sees himself as the patriarchal leader of the party he founded, PRO, and the Juntos por el Cambio coalition he helped put together along with the Radicals, the followers of Elisa Carrió and some Peronists who by acquiescing, willingly or not, to the ideological leadership of people associated with him, enabled what started as a movement limited to the relatively prosperous City of Buenos Aires to become a genuine alternative to Peronism that proved capable of winning elections nationwide. It was a major achievement that changed Argentine politics which, until then, had been dominated by populists of one kind or another.
A dozen years ago, Macri, prodded by his Ecuadorean advisor Jaime Durán Barba, understood that, since it would be unwise for him to run against the recently widowed Cristina, it would be better if he bided his time in his porteño stronghold and waited until 2015 when he would have a far better chance of winning, as in fact he did, beating the amiable Peronist Daniel Scioli by a narrow margin. Though today the situation is very different from what it was in 2011 and – unless the libertarian Javier Milei does even better than some predict – Juntos por el Cambio’s presidential candidate can be expected to leave any Peronist rival in the dust, Macri may have decided that it would be in his interest to keep his options open.
Everybody knows that the task awaiting whoever succeeds Alberto as president of a flat-broke, poverty-ridden Argentina, which among other things is getting battered by what elsewhere would be called hyperinflation, will be extraordinarily difficult. From the very first moment, the new government will have to choose between doing what it thinks is objectively necessary and what it feels able to get away with without setting off a social and political firestorm that could threaten its survival. After taking office in December 2015, Macri pinned his hopes on a “gradualist” approach in the belief that investors, both local and foreign, would soon bring in enough money to fuel an economic boom and thereby provide him with the leeway he would need to push through the “structural reforms” many agreed were urgently needed. Unluckily for him, and for the country, that easygoing strategy failed.
Both at home and in the world as a whole, the economic situation is now far worse than it was eight years ago. There is simply no room left for the kind of policy Macri then adopted in the hope that circumstances would allow his team to dismantle bit by bit the corporatist model the Peronists had consolidated and which, to borrow a metaphor once applied to Goldman Sachs, under the Kirchnerites and their La Cámpora shock troops is akin to “a great vampire squid” which is “relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells of money.” By doing so, it is sucking much of the population dry, reducing a growing proportion of the country’s inhabitants to utter poverty and depriving them of the “animal spirits” which, as Keynes pointed out, are needed for success.
If elected president, Macri would be a wonderfully easy target for defenders of the existing order who have long painted him as a heartless neoliberal who, having been raised in a plutocratic household, cares nothing at all for ordinary folk. Though by many criteria the government Macri headed was more left wing than the ones that preceded and followed it, its foes have succeeded in persuading a large number of people that it was every bit as right wing as the military dictatorship and should be treated with similar contempt.
This means that having Macri back in the Pink House would make things even harder for a new government faced with a multitude of extremely serious problems. So too would having him emulating Cristina by keeping an obsessively watchful eye on what the president is doing and calling him or her to order for evidently personal reasons.
If his efforts to induce Horacio Rodríguez Larreta to support Jorge Macri’s bid to become the next mayor of Buenos Aires City are anything to go by, Macri could find the temptation to do this irresistible. That would be a bad mistake. Instead, it would be far more helpful if he were to devote himself to gathering support for the new government on the world stage, whether as foreign minister or as a freelance, and by so doing prepare himself for an eventual comeback four or eight years from now when – providing the country remains a going concern and has not imploded like Venezuela – he will still be young enough to take on the heavy responsibilities that go with the top job.