Nestor y Cristina de Kirchner. Demotix. All rights reserved.
Argentina is living through the last days of an unusual presidential campaign, hitherto characterized by the absence of ideas and strong proposals, by sudden shifts in the three candidates’ economic platforms, and by a certain indifference of civil society regarding the electoral debate.
This scenario seems incomprehensible given the extreme polarization that has characterized politics in Argentina recently, its highest point being the death of controversial prosecutor Alberto Nisman and the attempt by the radical right opposition, backed by the Clarín media group, to hold president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner responsible for it.
The first element to consider in order to try to understand how the current situation has come about is the Nisman affair. It is worth remembering, in particular, that the investigations have revealed the "libertine" behaviour, to say the least, of the late magistrate (photographed in the company of sex-toy carrying young escorts) and the even more embarrassing connections with the US and Israeli secret services, with the ultra-rightist members of Congress Patricia Bullrich and Laura Alonso, and the “vulture funds” managed by US financier Paul Singer, who has been fighting for years a fierce legal battle in New York against Argentina. As a result, the Nisman case has ended up producing a boomerang effect on the opposition’s ability to set the political agenda for the forthcoming elections and strengthening President Fernández de Kirchner, whose popularity ratings have reached unheard of levels for a president in her final term.
Cristina Fernández’s renewed upswing has hit the presidential candidates extremely hard, and has been instrumental in defining their economic proposals and driving them to converge on a common pattern of continuity with the government’s current political and economic agenda. Until then, the opposition candidates had been voicing their willingness to make a clean slate of the Kirchner legacy and to carry out a policy of "change" consisting in a revival, albeit partial, of the traditional neoliberal agenda of the nineties. The most striking case is Mauricio Macri’s, who started defending a "republican" proposal for a minimal state and has gone so far as to build the first statue of Perón in Buenos Aires (a stronghold of the anti-Peronist right) so as to appear "not so liberal, not so gorilla-like" as he used to be.
This unexpected convergence has resulted in the anesthetizing of the campaign and, consequently, in a loss of interest by the voters. This should not, however, confuse our analysis of the country’s likely scenarios in the near future.
Even if this is unfortunately not new, Argentina is facing today a difficult time which is known in economic jargon as the end of the stop and go cycle. To put it simply: the phases of sustained growth of the economy driven by domestic demand and public investment (as was the case during the Kirchner decade) generate a strong pressure on the balance of payments (through imports) and are characterized by a tendency to increasing inflation (reflecting the distributive struggle caused by the reduction of unemployment and rising wages). This, in turn, encourages capital flight and dollar hoarding, threatening the level of national reserves and thus determining a continuous devaluation of the peso (with a feedback effect on inflation).
As long as exports of agricultural goods and the "commodities super-cycle" guaranteed a generous dollar flow to the Central Bank, the growth model was successful. But the fall in the price of soy, the continuing crisis in Europe and the recession in Brazil have led to a sharp slowdown in Argentine exports, threatening the sustainability of the current economic paradigm.
The traditional response against such a scenario is strong fiscal adjustment together with a sharp devaluation of the currency. Despite official statements and the differences (not minor, it should be noted) between the major candidates, this is a shared idea among their economic teams.
In the case of Daniel Scioli, the Peronist candidate leading the opinion polls, his trusted economic advisors (Miguel Bein and Mario Blejer) avowedly oppose devaluation and seek a way out through foreign debt (now at extremely low levels) and a massive State bond issue. They insist, however, that in order to be able to successfully do so, it is essential to reach a quick agreement with the vulture funds and the financial markets - thus decidedly departing from the current government’s standpoint. On the other hand, they claim that Argentina must return soon to a primary surplus, and advocate the end of tax deductions for agricultural exports. Which is to say, they are thinking of reducing public spending.
In the case of Mauricio Macri, his spin doctors (Carlos Melconian, Jose Luis Espert, Miguel Angel Broda) embody the most obtuse neoliberal orthodoxy of the 90s. They are proposing strong fiscal adjustment, the end of the wage indexing mechanisms, and the full liberalization of the currency market, together with a sharp devaluation of the peso.
Finally, Sergio Massa seems to waver between "Sciolista" proposals (promoted by Néstor Kirchner’s former economy minister Roberto Lavagna) and "Macrista" measures (defended by the former president of the Central Bank Martín Redrado).
The candidates show the same attitude on civil and human rights. It is very striking to witness the complete disappearance of the debate on abortion and the very scarce insistence on the need for further research on the crimes of the last civic-military dictatorship and the responsibilities of the Argentine business community.
In short, the leading presidential candidates’ platforms show the willingness to put an end, wholly or in part, to the Kirchnerista model and its traditional banners. The objective elements which can be seen today indicate that Argentina is going to be characterized in the near future by an attempt to "build a normal country" after the K anomaly.
However, how and if such a result will come about depends on some important variables, such as the make-up of the next Congress and the attitude (favourable or otherwise) of the unions. It also depends on the capacity of the Argentine people to defend the civil, democratic, social and labour rights they have won over the years.
Remembering Eric Hobsbawn and his definition of the Argentine working class as the most pugnacious in Latin America, it would be very hazardous to say that, whatever the result of the October 25 presidential election, a restoration in Buenos Aires is to be anticipated.