To present the Zoom blooper of a Salta deputy fondling his alleged partner on his lap in the midst of a Congress session as the prelude to a political crisis of the first magnitude might seem completely over the top. But then again, if eating bats can bring the entire planet to a standstill (the 2020 version of a butterfly flapping its wings in the South China Sea), why not? This tawdry episode could have a bigger impact in Argentina than Monica Lewinsky, not so much because of the incident in itself as its context as the last straw bringing the political profession into terminal disrepute. More than superb ammunition for gossip columnists or an accident waiting to happen with the technological hazards of virtual sessions, this disgrace might well prove to be the match lighting a new “Begone with them all” powder-keg.
The scandal was bad enough without its context, of course. A legislator is clearly not earning his well-paid keep when he shows more interest in the outcome of a female aide’s plastic surgery than in the parliamentary search for solutions to this year’s compound mega-crisis, but the timing of Kirchnerite deputy Juan Emilio Ameri (Frente de Todos-Salta) only added insult to injury – while his star Kirchnerite colleague Carlos Heller, author of the wealth levy promoted above all by Ameri’s own wing of the ruling coalition, was speaking. Any attempt at explanation (such as verifying whether his investment in the girlfriend’s plastic surgery was value for money) only made matters worse – Ameri had no choice but to resign as the day of the scandal drew to a close. A casualty of the involuntary exposure of his private life, perhaps, but those who live by the sword die by the sword, or rather modern technology – his prolific and provocative use of the social networks included recalling 9/11 earlier this month as the United States blowing up 3,000 of its own people in order to fabricate an excuse to grab Middle East oil.
But the insult extends beyond party and Congress colleagues. How are the millions of people suffering the pandemic, a number far exceeding the 13.1 percent now officially jobless, going to feel represented by a deputy grossing over 240,000 pesos a month (or a couple of dozen IFE emergency family benefits) and misbehaving in this fashion? Quite apart from collecting almost a quarter million pesos himself from the public purse, Ameri employed his girlfriend as an advisor, a post with a stipend ranging between 70,000 and 150,000 pesos. She apparently takes home 140,000 if reports are to be believed – even the lower end of this scale would be a luxury in times when anybody counting on any fixed income at the end of the month can consider themselves fortunate.
Tragic as this would be for any chance of parliamentary democracy in Argentina, this country is closer to “Begone with them all” than at any time since the start of this century – why have these parasites at all if they only add to the burning problems, many are asking? Extreme times breed extreme reactions – back in 2001 it was 9/11 in the world and convertibility meltdown at home, while today global pandemic is joined here by acute economic crisis and quarantine fatigue.
Any move against Congress might seem only to reinforce this pandemic year’s trend towards concentrating emergency powers in a presidency already engaged in eroding the judicial branch, a drive which is also a prime factor adding to political discredit – what other country in the world is making judicial reform its priority amid coronavirus deaths and economic collapse? Yet the tidal waves of pandemic are also leaving the government increasingly adrift, demoralised by how little their silver bullet of the debt bond swap has done to stop the rot – the approval ratings of President Alberto Fernández have been virtually halved since their peak six months ago.
Yet any opposition celebration of this malaise would also be misinterpreting the public mood. The disenchantment runs deeper than the current presidency to see each government as worse than the one before since Néstor Kirchner – the second term of the current vice-president was worse than the first with Mauricio Macri worse still, at least judging from the short-term results with any benefits sown for the medium and long haul nipped in the bud. With this logic the solution goes beyond changing the government for another downward turn in the spiral or even the economic model – the whole country beyond partisan or sectorial interests needs to take a hard look at the institutional fabric and product mix to make them work.