The Perils Of Polarization & How The Fabric Of Democracy Is Tearing Apart In Argentina
The distance between what politicians say in public and their actions is incredibly large, and it’s not clear whether this is a prerequisite or a consequence of the profession. In Argentina, most major political leaders agree in public that, without some sort of basic consensus, the country’s socio-economic project is untenable. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, current vice-president and one of the most powerful people in the country, had asked for something like the “Moncloa Pacts,” which were a cornerstone of Spain’s transition from the fascism of Francisco Franco to the moderate and successful social democracy that it is today. President Alberto Fernández was conjured by Cristina to lead a friendly pan-Peronist Frente de Todos that would integrate rather than expel. Mauricio Macri built his successful 2015 presidential bid on ideas of empathy and dialogue. His coalition was ultimately branded Juntos por el Cambio (“juntos” means together in Spanish). Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, who currently leads the polls and expects to arrive at next year’s elections as a competitive candidate, has built his public image on being an able manager and a seeker of dialogue. Even Sergio Massa, a key actor in the ruling Frente de Todos coalition who is always playing to his own benefit, has sought out consensus across party lines, as he did to win the approval of the 2023 Budget in the Chamber of Deputies.
As the draft budget bill laid bare at that time, the last thing we are seeing in the Argentine political field of play is true dialogue, consensus building and an aspiration to overcome polarization. We are living in the era of the “grieta” squared – that is, a double polarization that antagonistically pits both major coalitions against each other, while internally seeing them become deeply divided into hawks and doves.
Massa’s budget, which includes fairytales like a projection of inflation at 60 percent in 2023, exposed the tectonic plates of the Argentine political system. Máximo Kirchner, the former head of the Frente de Todos caucus in the lower house and an outspoken critic of President Fernández, was absent throughout the whole debate, only making an appearance to cast a vote. A year before, he had been picked out as the one to blame for the failure to secure the passage of a budget concocted by Martín Guzmán, while recently he’s been busy saying Alberto shouldn’t even be a contender for re-election in 2023. The Kirchnerites grouped around the La Cámpora political organization have been the fiercest critics of the administration they created, and now seem to have lost patience with Economy Minister Massa, whose honeymoon appears to be over.
Across the aisle, the PRO party decided to abstain from the vote, claiming the government was trying to use the budget to “discipline” the Judiciary. It didn’t matter that during Macri’s presidency they passed laws aimed at eliminating tax benefits for judges and other members of the Judiciary. This time around, and because it came from a Peronist government, it was extortion. That’s not the opinion that their fellow coalition members, the Radical Civic Union (UCR) espoused, voting in favor of Massa’s budget. There was even division within the UCR which was forced to vote via videoconference and required a tie-breaker from none other than Julio Cobos, the man who served as a former vice-president during Fernández de Kirchner’s presidency and cast a devastating vote against his own boss during a confrontation with the agricultural sector in 2008.
Examples of this behavior abound both in Argentina and throughout the region, and probably the world. The underlying question here is whether we, the people, can continue to tolerate this system. The evidence seems to suggest otherwise, as polarization has increased along with discontent. In a recent masterclass for students of Perfil Educación, political strategist and communications expert Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubi explained how Latin America is experiencing a deep crisis that is being exacerbated by a dangerous feedback loop. It is caused by the “Six Ds” (in Spanish): distrust, disillusion, inequality, “demo-crisis,” division, and disinformation. Noting that this generation is one of the first to be certain that they will be worse-off than their parents in a long time, Gutiérrez-Rubi explained that a continuation of a status quo defined by the Six Ds will lead to a collapse of the socio-political system and that the only way out is for political leaders to reach agreements that represent a major portion of society. This would be the only way to avoid almost immediate rejection as we have seen in Chile with Gabriel Boric and in the United Kingdom with Liz Truss. Our tolerance with the political class is non-existent, and this is very dangerous because it feeds a growing generation of youngsters who have given up on the system.
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The disconnect may have to do with the difference between winning elections and governing. Gutiérrez-Rubí, who has advised Fernández de Kirchner in the past and remains close to the ruling Frente de Todos coalition, makes the clearest case for reaching an agreement with the opposition: the system, and therefore society, will collapse if not. It’s the same thing that Rodríguez Larreta has been saying for a while: build a supermajority of some 70 percent of votes but also the political will needed to govern. Yet in practice, Rodríguez Larreta is increasingly berating his opponents in order to not lose out to Patricia Bullrich, while CFK’s sector continues to work against Alberto and Massa in its apparent self-interest.
It is difficult to imagine how our political class can find its way out of this mess, particularly if one analyzes all of the cloak-and-dagger negotiations held in the middle of the night in order to pass a fictitious budget that allocates taxpayer money according to political proximity. Society has already grown bored and tired, and promises to move further in that direction as long as the system fails to solve its basic necessities, in particular the worsening of an individual’s welfare. For that, everyone would have to give in a little, starting with Cristina and Macri, to demonstrate that they understand the severity of the situation. Unfortunately, they’ve already passed on that opportunity and appear to be more centred on their roles as coalition kingmakers rather than statesmen.
This piece was originally published in the Buenos Aires Times, Argentina’s only English-language newspaper.
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