Spoiled for Little Choice

Even by the standards of recent Argentine presidential elections, the build-up to this Sunday’s vote has been anything but riveting. Save for the fact that it has delivered a historic run-off, it has produced little in the way of intriguing discussions, let alone genuinely fresh and inspiring ideas for the Argentina of today and tomorrow.

It appears as if Mauricio Macri will pull off an initially unexpected victory and take the presidency, thus bringing to an end twelve years of rule under the Kirchners. For many, both home and abroad, this will be of great relief. However, talk of a new dawn in Argentina is both premature and simplistic, wholly neglecting the general incoherence and complexity of its politics, all too perplexing for any standard political evaluation, and the difficulty in finding clear and substantive distinctions between the two presidential candidates.

This has been an election to forget for the governing party. Comfortably ahead in the polls before the first round, yet wary of its fragility on issues such as the economy, as well as perhaps the vulnerability of senior figures to future judicial investigations, it plumped for an ‘insurance’ candidate in Daniel Scioli. Running a campaign seemingly premised on anything but positive aims for the country, it appeared inconceivable that a vote other than for Scioli would not result in a society fractured by devaluation, indebtment and austerity, as well as governed from afar by the IMF and rulings of Thomas Griesa.

Scioli never quite managed to shake off his tag as Cristina Kirchner’s hand-picked candidate, nor effectively distance himself from her as campaigning continued after the results of the first round. Unloved and distrusted by much of the bedrock of Cristina’s support, as well as its militant factions, and to a large extent because of his political and business dealings during the 90s, he was never offered the unconditional support he desperately needed. Wooden and uncharismatic, he could not compete with the relatively telegenic Macri.

It has taken years for Macri to arrive here, having gradually built a platform through successes on and off the field as president of Boca Juniors and later as mayor of Buenos Aires. His stewardship of the capital over the past eight years, widely held up as a success story throughout his presidential campaign, has been the subject of furious debate, although it is clear it fell well short of most of its aims. While Scioli’s repeated warnings that Macri would usher in destructive policies may not have necessarily stuck with voters, the latter has steadfastly refused to extensively detail the economic measures he would adopt in office, nor their likely effects. Feted by the markets and many a Western editorial as the individual who would restore confidence in Argentina and its economy, there has been little serious examination of the merits of his portrayal as a successful businessman. However, Macri’s political background from outside of Peronism, let alone any established party machinery, possibly lends some credibility to his emphasis on renewal and a new politics.

Hard times are inevitable in the coming years for Argentina. But beyond the catchphrases, biographical details and personality contrasts endlessly underlined thus far, and perhaps partially concealing the real unanimity of the two candidates on most policy issues, the most telling feature of this presidential race was the absence from it of so many topics of national significance. Amidst lofty pledges of “zero poverty” in certain quarters, there has been little discussion as to the nature of the inequality underpinning it. As violence and drug trafficking continue to soar, there has been no consideration of alternative and rehabilitative approaches for tackling the crisis, nor a hard look at the effectiveness of law enforcement bodies across the country and the victims of their incompetence, corruption and brutality. Environmental issues have hardly been alluded to, nor has the country’s extraction-intensive development of the past decade and its consequences been suitably questioned. The rights of indigenous peoples, further threatened by the extractive model, have by and large been mentioned in the context of a single photo opportunity. Barring the occasional reference to femicide, other social issues of significance such as abortion have hardly featured. The country’s place in the world and region, as well as the death of Alberto Nisman, have similarly received scant attention.

It is difficult to say what will be missed about Kirchnerism. While the post-default economic recovery, prosecution of crimes during the military dictatorship and challenges it posed to the world economic consensus in its early years, as well as introduction of certain social programmes and initiatives over its entirety, were encouraging, in later years Argentina has on its watch grown more polarised, corrupt, unequal, unsafe and insular on the world stage. Its much-vaunted yet always poorly defined modelo now appears bankrupt and exhausted, offering few solutions for alleviating the country’s infinitude of problems.

Change for change’s sake is rarely worth it. But perhaps at least in the mere interests of democratic renewal, and with very little to distinguish between them, it may be preferable that Macri of the two candidates prevails. The wider-reaching consequences, if any, of that choice are though nebulous, and potentially dangerously so. All the more reason to be sceptical of any forthcoming “change” and hold it just as rigorously to account as what preceded it. One only pities the lack of real choice here.

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