May 20, 2013
Too few limits to Cristina’s power
When Lord Actor told us that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, he was merely pointing out that, left to their own devices, most people will end up doing whatever they can get away with, leaving others to pay the bill. The less imaginative will concentrate on feathering their own nests, hence all those billions of dollars or euros that are stashed away in places like Switzerland by appallingly crass dictators. Others, who by and large do even more harm than the kleptocrats, get it into their heads that a tribal god, destiny, or History with a capital H, wants them to transform first the country that has the misfortune to be under their sway and then, if they try hard enough, the rest of the planet.
Holding such people in check is what democracy is all about. If democratic arrangements work properly, they prevent societies from degenerating into personal fiefdoms by obliging ambitious individuals to operate within an institutional framework designed to ensure that no single person, cabal or political party can acquire too much power. But if the democratic system falls into disrepair, as it certainly has in Argentina, there will be little to stop them behaving like their counterparts in countries that have always been in the hands of tyrants of one kind or another.
There are plenty of genuine democrats in Argentina, but there are also many people who, though they are willing to play lip service to democratic values, are authoritarians at heart. As has always been the case with individuals of an authoritarian temperament, they are obnoxiously bossy towards the powerless but are more than happy to prostrate themselves before the powerful. For a short time at the turn of the century, it seemed that the democrats had the upper hand. After the economy capsized, however, the authoritarians came swarming back, like a horde of greedy termites, and set about undermining the system of checks and balances without which democracy can hardly be said to exist.
Once installed in the Pink House, first Cristina’s husband, and then Cristina herself, made it their business to put to the test the institutional limits to their power. No doubt they were delighted to discover they were far more elastic than they had been led to believe. In theory, there were many things they would not be permitted to do, but they did them anyway and found that, far from telling them to respect the rules or else, much of the citizenry applauded them for restoring presidential authority by letting the country feel the smack of firm government.
As well as greatly increasing, or laundering, their already considerable fortune, with the apparent approval of the judges charged with looking into their financial affairs, Mr and Mrs Kirchner enriched their friends and retainers by resurrecting the crony capitalism that had flourished so mightily during Carlos Menem’s decade in office. And, in her widowhood, Cristina has taken to handing out well-paid jobs in key positions to members of a small army of relatively youthful “militants” who say they will remain loyal to her no matter what. In addition to running, in their own peculiar fashion, the national airline and the country’s biggest oil company, the boys and girls of La Cámpora are reportedly about to take control with the national mint. That will suit them: as well as writing their own cheques, they will be able to print their own money.
The United States and Europe are full of politicians who, given the chance, would behave much like Cristina, but because most are aware it would not be in their interest to do so they play the game by the rules, on occasion bending them slightly but not enough to provide their rivals and some scrupulous supporters with an excuse to gang up on them. In Argentina, where political traditions are distinctly authoritarian, the democratic defences against abuses were abandoned years ago by legislators, civil servants, members of the judiciary and others whose equivalents elsewhere would profess themselves outraged were the local president or prime minister to ride roughshod over the institutions, make nonsense of official economic statistics, use public money to build a media empire whose sole purpose would be to sing the praises of the Leader, try to demolish publishing groups that are reluctant to join in the chorus, appropriate radio and television stations several times a week in order to subject the population to a series of dreary soliloquies, and encourage trade unions to go on strike in districts that are either in opposition hands or, which is just as bad, in those of a supporter who is accused of having ideas of his own.
It would be unfair to blame Cristina alone for what is happening. Surrounded as she is by politicians, businessmen and young folk on the make who keep egging her on and unctuously applaud her every utterance, she has found it all too easy to indulge her instincts and play the part of the all-powerful den mother that evidently appeals to her. Had Argentina’s democratic institutions been stronger, Cristina might have turned out to be an admirable president. Unfortunately for her, and for the country, they are so pathetically weak that, the way things are shaping up, her term in office looks all too likely to end in tears.