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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 27-08-2021 23:23

When weakness is strength

In politics, having an unprepossessing alternative at hand can be a big advantage.

In the United States and Argentina, which imported the institutional arrangements adopted by the “founding fathers” up north, a president with almost monarchical powers is often accompanied by an individual who, like Dan Quayle or Isabelita Perón, is widely regarded as being utterly incapable of replacing him should an unkind destiny remove him from office. This is certainly not the case today. In both countries, there are many who think the serving president is not up to the job, but want him to soldier on because, for very different reasons, they fear the woman who, were he to quit, would be first in the line of succession. 

Here, it is taken for granted that Alberto Fernández would never have got anywhere near the presidency had it not been for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s awareness, back in 2019, that so many people were against her she would be hard put to defeat even Mauricio Macri in a run-off. As a front man, she needed an individual who could play the role of a benign moderate and decided that Alberto – despite having been one of her fiercest critics – could be relied on to make an effort to do her bidding. It was a smart move and events would prove that, whatever her other failings, she was a good judge of character. Since taking office, Alberto has gone out of his way to obey her orders; on the few occasions on which he has seemed reluctant to do so, his alleged stroppiness has made headline news.

In the United States, Joe Biden surprised many when he picked Kamala Harris to be his running mate. Experts attributed the choice to his desire to be accompanied by a woman, which would please the vociferous feminist lobby, and a person “of colour” whose presence would help placate the race-obsessed wing of the Democrat Party. Is this what Biden himself was thinking? Perhaps, but it is also possible that machiavellian members of the team which supported him had been suitably impressed by Kamala’s notably lacklustre performance in the Democrat primaries and assumed that she would quickly make herself so unpopular that the thought of having her taking charge of the presidency would outrage Republicans and frighten many of the party faithful, with the result that her mere presence in the wings would make people overlook poor old Joe’s evident “cognitive” shortcomings. In politics, having an unprepossessing alternative at hand can be a big advantage.

Alberto may have all his faculties intact but, to judge from his performance, he is far less well qualified than he evidently believes himself to be. In addition to being the proud owner of a law degree and therefore entitled to put Dr before his name, a distinction he shares with a large proportion of his fellow politicians, he teaches law in the country’s top university. As he frequently reminds us, in his own eyes at least this makes him a full professor.

It was therefore disconcerting to find him in affect agreeing with some of his aides that the degrees he signed last year and were vigorously applied in an effort to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, were unconstitutional, and that the Penal Code articles alluding to what could be done in the event of the country getting hit by a pandemic should not be taken too literally. All this must have come as a pleasant surprise to the many thousands who face legal charges for flouting the rules he set out, but the relief they presumably feel is unlikely to help Alberto.

After it belatedly became known that, over a year ago, he had happily celebrated the first girlfriend’s birthday in the Olivos presidential retreat when much of the rest of the population was confined to quarters under gunpoint, he set off a political storm big enough to induce him to say he would not let himself be ousted for “making a mistake” and, in any case, people should not forget that he is just an ordinary bloke. Needless to say, his attempt to wriggle free from the sticky web entangling him by making what he imagined were fine legal distinctions only a law professor could understand did nothing to enhance his reputation. They merely made him look shifty and invited ridicule. What is more, some hawkish members of the opposition thought that by behaving in such a way he had given them solid grounds for impeachment.

In many countries, a prime minister or even president who behaved like Alberto would soon be out on his or her ear, but right now Argentina is not one of them. Were Alberto to go, he would be replaced immediately by another accredited lawyer, Vice-President Cristina, who as far as the opposition leaders are concerned, would be far worse. In the Argentine version of the political game, Alberto’s evident weakness makes his position stronger as, in the United States, Biden’s is buttressed by the knowledge that, were he to step down for some reason, he would be succeeded straight away by Kamala Harris.

For several years now, Cristina has retained the backing of between a quarter and a third of the electorate. This has allowed her to dominate the Peronist movement, but by itself has not been enough to get enough votes to win an election outright. Were there clear evidence that she could do this, Alberto would be made dispensable, but there have been no signs that support for her is increasing. On the contrary, it would appear that more and more people are growing tired of the current set-up and would like to see both Cristina and her arch-enemy Mauricio call it a day so a new – well, relatively new – crop of political leaders could take their place.

As for Biden, he has his back up against the wall. The fallout from the overhasty and appallingly planned withdrawal from Afghanistan has hurt him badly and even newspapers and television channels which for long overlooked his deficiencies because if nothing else he was not Donald Trump, have taken to criticising his performance and drawing attention to the “cognitive” disabilities they can blame on his advancing age, something which up to then they had left to supporters of his predecessor.

However, this does not mean they think Kamala Harris would do better. Even those who are willing to give her the benefit of every conceivable doubt and would dearly like to see a woman “of colour” up there as commander-in-chief, suspect that once in office she would put off so many people that the Republicans, with or without Trump leading the charge, would make sweeping gains in the following elections, an eventuality which, needless to say, does not appeal to any of them.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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