Politics and the PressSaturday, March 15, 2014
Neither winners nor losers
For The Herald
“Neither winners nor losers.” The line came from Economy Minister Axel Kicillof during his appearance before the Senate on Thursday to defend a deal reached with Spain’s Repsol for compensation over the nationalization of YPF in 2012.
The description enjoyed the unusual privilege of becoming the editors’ choice for headline in newsrooms on both the anti- and pro-government ranks. But what if it also became a tagline for Argentine politics through the next presidential election in October 2015?
The opening of Argentina’s political year in the first two weeks of March showed last year’s squabbling leaders more willing to find common ground. As if the politicos of this land had taken enough fighting already, the words of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Governor Daniel Scioli, Mayor Mauricio Macri and even Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti during speeches to officially launch their governing agendas were smoother than they had been over the last few years.
A possible reason? The country’s political leadership took a fright in January, when the country appeared on the verge of an economic collapse of the fashion it is used to enduring every once in a while. A reality check burst the bubble of a navel-gazing agenda that included a somewhat irrational all-out war between the administration and the country’s leading media organization. Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich discussed government policy for 12 hours with senators this week — the first time since he got the job in November. Capitanich kindly asked the lawmakers to “discuss politics instead of media headlines.”
And yet there is one exception to this new norm of moderation. His name is Sergio Massa.
Massa, who many polls are showing as leading Argentina’s presidential preferences, is playing the outsider’s game in a race full of insiders. A former mayor of Tigre and the star of last year’s midterm vote in the province of Buenos Aires, where he bagged four million votes, Massa is a national deputy with little institutional responsibility on his shoulders. Ergo, the acceleration of an economic/political crisis could technically work in his favour. Most of the rest of the people on the race are sitting on executive chairs and would see their chances hurt if the country descends into chaos. Massa, on the contrary, needs a transition with clean-cut winners and losers.
The question is how much Massa is willing to resort to the odd-man-out card — again and again. At the sight of his management of the debate surrounding the government-sponsored drafting of a new Criminal Code for Argentina, he is not planning to commit to any political etiquette.
While being a maverick gives Massa the freedom he needs to work full-time on his presidential attempt, it also has its downside: he does not control the political agenda. His Frente Renovador Party has so far been good at twisting the existing reality to its own benefit but it is not clear it could successfully promote an agenda of its own. And yet the guy from Tigre has been quick at leaping at any opportunity opened by his rivals, especially by the government.
The Criminal Code reform debate saga was a window Massa surely did not dream of having and gave him instant nationwide exposure. Throughout the summer, his teams had been struggling to sneak into the political news pages by flagging a battery of draft bills on topics mostly linked to the economy, but with little success. Chasing somebody else’s agenda is the worst of nightmares for a presidential candidate. But with the Criminal Code reform, Massa took a long shot and scored a winner.
It is debatable whether his quick move to profit from a topic with a high public sensitivity through a handful of slogans is politically ethical after the draft bill proposed was discussed by an unusual multi-party committee led by a Supreme Court Justice during almost two years. Massa’s 24/7 effort to gather five million signatures against the new Code smells a bit too much of political marketing disguised as policy-making. Yet to paraphrase Pope Francis, who is one to judge when it comes to presidential campaign tactics? Argentina, however, is not used to cross-party, State policy agreements of the type Massa’s staunch criticism is about to break (for good?).
The printed press is one of the big losers of our time. Its downhill fall in circulation affects the quality of journalism as a trade and also its democratic role. The newspaper Clarín, the flagship publication of the government’s main media rival Grupo Clarín, had its worst year in terms of circulation in over half a century, according to figures published by the media analysis site Diario Sobre Diarios. Grupo Clarín posted its 2013 financial results this week and reported an 18 percent decline in its net income (from 972 to 801 million pesos). Its sales year-on-year went up 25 percent, though. The holding is bracing for a breakup as it adapts in the coming months to the anti-trust chapter of media legislation introduced in 2009. A loss, but definitely not the profile of a loser.