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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 14-05-2022 00:01

Who has the mandate of heaven?

As well as objecting stridently to Alberto’s willingness to come to terms with the International Monetary Fund, Cristina and her supporters are trying to undermine what authority he has by insidiously questioning his government’s right to exist at all.

For about 3,000 years, the Chinese took it for granted that unless their rulers enjoyed “the mandate of heaven” they deserved to be overthrown, as in fact a great many were, whether by their compatriots or by barbarian invaders riding down from the north. In other parts of the world, similar views prevailed until, in more prosaic times, the preferences of earthbound people began to take the place of those of divine entities with strong political opinions. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her acolytes find such ways of looking at things appealing, It is evident to them that, by letting down those who voted for him, President Alberto Fernández has forfeited the populist equivalent of the mandate of heaven and should either be replaced or brought to heel.

As well as objecting stridently to Alberto’s willingness to come to terms with the International Monetary Fund, Cristina and her supporters are trying to undermine what authority he has by insidiously questioning his government’s right to exist at all. They do this by saying, rightly or wrongly, that it has turned out to be nothing like what people imagined they were voting for back in October 2019, when Alberto promised them he would make sure they could fill their larders with goodies and would never ever do anything to make their lives more difficult.

Arguments about what political legitimacy really means and how to ensure it have been going on since the beginning of the Neolithic age. They have yet to reach a definite conclusion. In democratic countries, the consensus is that, by and large, it is better to continue to do things in accordance with the established rules than run the risks that would arise should attempts be made to apply schemes that might look good on paper but could have extremely unfortunate consequences if put into effect.

Most Argentines are of this opinion; they want to respect constitutional order so, unsatisfactory as Alberto’s government most certainly is, it will remain in office until the end of next year is in sight, unless he decides to call it quits or gets unseated by a mass insurrection, an eventuality that some suspect could take place before his allotted term runs out. 

In the topsy-turvy world of Argentine politics, one plus one often equals zero. The country now has two governments, but they cancel each other out, leaving it with none. As has always been the case in such circumstances, both governments insist they are legitimate, with Alberto basing his claim on what the National Constitution says and Cristina drawing attention to the assumption that she provided him with most of the votes that got him to where he is today and should therefore be fully in charge. Poll numbers suggest that her ability to deliver votes is far weaker than it once was, but as far as her supporters are concerned, the mandate of heaven is theirs and they are entitled to rule the country.

They are more than prepared not just to taunt Alberto by saying as much but also to behave as though they already did by ordering huge increases in public spending in the districts they are in charge of without going into details about where the money required will come from. This is what Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kiciloff – who desperately wants to keep Cristina happy because his own star is waning fast – is now doing; a few days ago, he announced that in the coming months the province’s army of public employees would receive a 60-percent pay rise.

All this would make some kind of sense if, as well as having the support of much of the population, the Kirchnerite diehards had in mind a more or less realistic economic programme they would like the man they put in the Pink House to implement. Unfortunately for all of us, they do not. Instead of asking Alberto to manage the economy more efficiently, they are urging him to ladle out cash to whoever needs more of it to make ends meet and take measures to ensure that the common folk, whose votes they rely on, do not have to pay more for the gas and electricity they will need to get them through the winter. 

How would they find the money needed to finance such a wonderfully generous programme? As well as squeezing the few men and women who have somehow remained solvent and depriving farmers of what they hope to earn, they want to rely on the printing press to provide them with enough to keep the economy moving. Inflation, a phenomenon they blame on greedy retailers, does not worry them in the slightest; many want more of it because they know it would make Alberto even more unpopular than he already is.

Is this what Cristina is proposing? Some think she is a true believer in what may charitably be described as heterodox economics and is therefore convinced that pumping the country full of new banknotes will not also be more than enough to make people feel things are going well but also, by restoring confidence in the future, propel the economy onwards and upwards. Others assume that she knows perfectly well that her magic formula would not work but is only interested in ensuring that, by dissociating herself from the government she gave the country, nobody will dream of blaming her for the crash she sees fast approaching. 

Meanwhile, Alberto and Economy Minister Martín Guzmán are trying to keep public spending under control or, at least, to prevent it from going through the roof. Though they have clearly given up pretending they will make a genuine effort to stick to the agreement they reached with the IMF several months ago, they do seem to realise it would not be in their interest to have Argentina suffer a hyperinflationary firestorm before they have handed things over to whoever comes next.

Guzmán’s reluctance to let everything rip is appreciated by businessmen and trade union leaders who have come to regard him as a fairly reasonable fellow surrounded by lunatics who are determined to bring about his downfall, but his refusal to appease them by ignoring what the numbers say has made him very unpopular in Kirchnerite circles. In places like California straightforward mathematics is under attack by people who think it is inherently racist; in Argentina, many populists believe it is neoliberal which, in this part of the world, is thought to be every bit as bad, and should therefore be treated with contempt.

James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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