May 19, 2013
Populism in hard times
When Néstor Kirchner became president back in 2003, he decided he would be well advised to win the support of local heavies, the kind of street-fighters who helped overthrow his Radical predecessor Fernando de la Rúa, so he put large numbers of rabble-rousers, “picket” bosses, soccer hooligans with a taste for murderous mayhem and the like on the state payroll. Given the circumstances, that policy made sense, but because Argentina was in such a bad shape there were soon hundreds of organizations, some big, others small, that demanded they be given a share of the spoils. Most are still with us. Among them can be found the “cooperative” that spokespeople for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government say ransacked some supermarkets in Bariloche just before Christmas, thereby setting off a spate of copy-cat lootings in other parts of the country.
According to Bariloche Mayor Omar Goye, a fervent supporter of the Kirchnerite enterprise, Cristina had ordered him to pay off the “cooperative” which, it seems, is attached to a network of such outfits that is headed by her sister-in-law, Social Development Minister Alicia Kirchner. If this really is the case, the government is busily subsidizing the very people it accuses of trying to overthrow it.
This was always bound to happen. Margaret Thatcher once pointed out that socialism works well enough until it runs out of other people’s money. That is even more true of populism, a political system that functions like a giant protection racket, taking money from those who are unable to keep it and handing it not just to the genuinely destitute but also to born troublemakers. For the best part of a decade, the Kirchnerite government has been doling out dollops of cash to groupings of ambitious politicians on the make like La Cámpora, associations of like-minded “intellectuals”, friendly businessmen and the leaders of organizations of potentially rebellious down-and-outs who in return provide the crowds that are bussed in, as they were last week to Mar del Plata to greet the Navy’s training ship, the Libertad, on its return from a spell of captivity in Africa, to cheer the President’s every utterance, shout slogans, wave flags and, when elections come round, urge people to vote for her.
Unfortunately, money is currently in short supply, so the government has been forced to tell its many dependents that most of them will have to learn to fend for themselves, a prospect few find particularly appealing. As they are shakedown artists by trade, unless the government gives them what they want and have been told they are entitled to, they will demand it from others, starting with the people in charge of the nearest supermarket. This being the case, the pre-Christmas looting spree may be regarded as a warning shot, a way of reminding the government that it would be unwise to turn its back on the Argentine street.
For Cristina’s populist dispensation to stay on the road for much longer, it will need a steadily increasing amount of hard cash. Thanks to sky-high prices for soybeans, draconian tax increases and inflation, up to now it has managed to foot the bill, but the way things are going those happy days are about to come to an end, if they have not done so already. That no doubt is the reason Cristina has been behaving so strangely of late, flying off the handle whenever someone like the actor Ricardo Darín makes an adverse comment on her record and berating Buenos Aires province Governor Daniel Scioli for clinging to his precious US dollars.
The President has grown so accustomed to throwing money at social problems that she is ill-equipped to handle them by other means. Her instinctive reaction to the advent of hard times has been to blame them on provincial governors and town mayors, but while they were willing to put up with a periodic presidential tongue-lashing in exchange for more government funding, it is no longer in their interest to do so. As Cristina is surely well aware, their “loyalty” to her cause, to what she calls her “project”, comes with a hefty price-tag.
Cristina’s term in office is due to end in December 2015, but if her performance these last few months is anything to go by, by then her economic “model” will have long since been dismantled by events. Inflation is picking up steam: optimists predict that this year it will remain under 30 percent, but it could easily reach 40, 50 or even more. The country’s ramshackle energy sector could soon be reduced to delivering little more than rolling blackouts, many supermarkets may be short of goods long before the looters arrive, state employees are certain go on the warpath because local administrations will be unable to pay them on time, labour unions will compete see which one can get the biggest pay increase and, needless to say, the myriad organizations that have sprouted up thanks to government largesse can be relied on to take to the streets to vent their anger.
Were things to get really ugly, how would Cristina react? Some suspect she would simply pack it in, as Néstor advised her to do when the then vice-president Julio Cobos torpedoed her farm bill, others say she would fight to the bitter end with the help of her more violent supporters. Most hope that particular question remains merely hypothetical, but given the state the country is already in, few would bet on it.