If President Mauricio Macri could project the current state of affairs through to the October general election, he would not hesitate. This is by far the best political moment of his year. This is the year that he will go down in history as the first non-Peronist president to complete an elected term in almost a century. But it is also the year that will define whether his centreright, pro-market presidency is an exception to multi-headed Peronist rule, or if it’s the new norm for 21st century Argentina.
Still, October is long way away in Argentina’s moody political climate, which shifts to the tune of an economy that has been unpredictable ever since the sharp run on the peso that started in April 2018. In the last few weeks, all of a sudden, the peso has strengthened and investments in the local currency delivered a profit of 21 percent in dollars during June, the month that saw confirmation the main tickets that will be competing for the presidency this year.
Can this peace last? Nobody really knows. But if is does, Macri’s chances of re-election will begin to improve again. In that context, there could hardly be a better campaign narrative for the president than the one he gained with the Mercosur-European Union trade agreement signed in Brussels last week.
Macri reached office promising Argentines a better life of less conflict, in which poverty would be taken down to zero, Argentines would united and drug-dealers would be jailed. But that was 2015. And it was a campaign. The reality of life in office was tougher than the president expected, and the country’s solvency crisis thwarted most of his plans. Throughout these difficulties, the president steadfastly stuck to his talking points, de- claring that Argentina was doing what “needs to be done” in order to have a better future.
Stress on the word future. The power of the ruling party narrative is based on delayed gratific a t i o n . I n t h e government’s opinion, after almost four years in office, Macri’s most severe political mistake was to assume that the country’s economy would sort itself out thanks to a better reputation. This was symbolised by his campaign line back in 2015 that there would be “a downpour of foreign investment” once he was elected. That, of course, never materialised.
The agreement with the European Union, and the language on trade in general, now opens up a new window for a paradisiacal future that, at the same time, requires “action.” This means the government can now push for an agenda of reform with a purpose – and also provide a countdown until the moment when the agreement comes into effect, likely around midway into the next presidential term if congressional approvals move forward at the rate anticipated. And it will also give the president a perfect excuse to move forward faster, as he said he would do, should he win re-election in October or in the likely second round in November.
While the government markets (a distant?) future during its own campaign, the opposition is speaking about the present, which is very real. This week, the River Plate football club opened up its doors to provide shelter to over 100 homeless people during Wednesday’s cold night. Donations were received at the Monumental stadium after one person sleeping on the streets was reported to have died of hypothermia on Monday near Government House in downtown Buenos Aires. On Thursday, a truck loaded with pork broke down near the city of Santa Fe and was looted by local residents, who walked away with a share of its cargo.
These news items are fodder for the opposition but at the same time they are also a time trap. What are the opposition’s plans for the future, except for getting rid of Macri? So far, what has emerged from their campaigning is mostly platitudes about the importance of getting the economy to grow again. Easy, right? This applies both to the main opposition challenger Alberto Fernández and the dissident Peronist candidate Roberto Lavagna. Predictably, the government has started to exploit that approach. After a government meeting on Thursday, Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña said openly: “The only thing the Kirchnerite opposition has to offer is fear and resignation.” He alleged that was “because they managed to accomplish nothing of what they are proposing when they were in office.”
The opposition now faces the challenge of articulating its own
sexy language about the future. It is not easy to do so, at the least
quickly. But its political and language strategy has been designed
on a base scenario, that the government would not recover, and
that the economic situation would deteriorate further. “Never
underestimate a ruling party,” I wrote here over a month ago. A
confident government, one that even dares to even talk now about
a future trade deal with the United States, is likely to be the norm
until the August 11 primary. The outcome of October’s dress rehearsal might confirm or alter its mood, but for now, that’s the
record that’s playing.