December 10, 2013
Cristina faces an uncertain future
Trouble looms for president as end nears
Argentina’s version of the rigid political system that was devised in the late 18th century by the “founding fathers” of the US works after a fashion when whoever happens to be president is reasonably popular. When he or she loses what the Chinese call “the mandate of heaven,” it breaks down. Luckily for the country, Raúl Alfonsín’s definitive fall from grace in mid-1989 came when a replacement, Carlos Menem, had just won an election and was already waiting in the wings, so his decision to quit the stage, there and then, did not do much damage. Fernando de la Rúa was less fortunate; his foes were in no mood to let him hang around for two more years, so when the economy started collapsing they kicked him out.
With these disreputable precedents in mind, many politicians are feeling distinctly nervous. Apart from the few who would like to see Cristina and assorted members of her government impeached for allegedly looting the country and riding roughshod over the laws they are supposed to respect while in office, they all say they want her to finish her allotted two-year term in the Pink House even if her “Victory Front” gets badly mauled in the elections due to be held in October because otherwise Argentina would experience yet another institutional upheaval, but just by raising the matter they are telling us that they suspect trouble is fast approaching and hope nobody puts the blame on them.
Cristina herself is well aware that the odds are stacked against her now that the once overwhelming support she enjoyed has shrivelled away, leaving her with a hard core of fanatics plus a considerable number of extremely poor people who, taken together, amount to about a quarter of the electorate. Hardly a day goes by without her saying or tweeting that nasty people are plotting to unseat her. She even goes so far as to accuse those who think her government should pay attention to the checks and balances that in theory exist of being coup-mongers. By going on like this, Cristina is busily installing the idea that Argentina has entered yet another tumultuous phase and suggesting that, far from feeling alarmed, she welcomes the prospect.
She probably does. Even before her husband handed her the presidential paraphernalia for safekeeping, she had got used to speaking as though the real opposition was not to be found in Congress but in a number of sinister “corporations”, among them the Armed Forces. A few months after taking over, she succeeded in identifying their leader: the Clarín group’s CEO, Héctor Magnetto, an evil genius so extraordinarily cunning that he has even managed to put Barack Obama in his pocket.
In Cristina’s view and that of her more ferocious subordinates, the notion that they were fighting a sort of holy war against such an unscrupulous gang of neoliberal capitalists and their imperialistic friends abroad gave them the right to set about dismantling those institutions, big or small, that stood in their way, treating them as obstacles erected long ago by farsighted bourgeois liberals determined to prevent anything resembling a popular revolution from taking place.
Until it became plain that much of the country was fed up with Cristina’s televised harangues and the antics of members of her personal movement’s youth wing, La Cámpora, the government could get away with treating the country’s institutional framework with open contempt. As far as Cristina and her backers are concerned, all those consultative bodies with their pedantic rules are just so much reactionary junk. So they gleefully set about sawing the branch they were sitting on.
One thing that could prevent the coup-mongers they glimpse lurking everywhere from booting them all out is a widespread desire to uphold the Constitution. Another is the understandable reluctance of many politicians to assume responsibility for the economic mess Cristina has concocted. They know that sorting it out will require some rather distasteful measures. So too does Cristina, but she insists that nothing will force her to change course. A couple of days ago, she warned that belt-tightening would make society implode. And if the money runs out? In that event, there would no doubt be an almighty crash she would blame on the IMF, greedy businessmen and “orthodox” economists, anybody but herself, but by then she would surely have become so unpopular that she would be spared the necessity of eating her happy-go-lucky words.
For several decades, Argentine politics followed a simple routine. A populist government would spend like crazy, letting inflation rip, and would then be removed by a military dictatorship that would try, without much success, to restore a modicum of sanity, but after a few years would become so unpopular that, to well nigh universal acclaim, the free-spenders would come roaring back.
That rudimentary system was discarded in 1983, but ingrained habits die hard, so when Alfonsín’s government was overwhelmed by a huge hyperinflationary mudslide, Menem, a Peronist, was left to do the dirty work, which he did by adopting a currency board. Much the same fate is in store for whoever comes after Cristina, though he or she will not be able to emulate Me-nem who, for a time at least, enjoyed considerable success until it became clear that, while most people were only too pleased to make the most of the benefits provided by monetary stability, far too few were willing to submit to the fiscal discipline needed to conserve it.