Message of Unity Is Resonating for Argentines
Street nomenclature can be a subtle way of expressing political loyalties here. A small street near the Argentine congress is officially named Presidente Teniente General Juan Domingo Perón, after the late populist leader. But his die-hard opponents insist on using its former name, Cangallo, a quiet refusal to honor the man they blame for ruining the country.
Ideological disagreements, of course, predate General Perón, but the divide between his supporters and opponents has been a structural component of Argentine politics since the 1950s.
Polarization has evolved and intensified significantly in recent years. The schism, known as “la grieta,” divides supporters of former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner from those of her successor, President Mauricio Macri. The two camps over the past decade have waged a scorched-earth political battle framed in Manichaean moral terms, more reminiscent of a holy war than democratic debates. It has been electorally profitable, however, and most analysts believed that “la grieta” would define the general election, to be held on Oct. 27.
Here, as elsewhere in our increasingly polarized world, it has become taboo to discuss politics in social circles that (miraculously) still include divergent ideological visions. Family members obsessively avoid discussing the elections, or just avoid one another. There are even Tinder-style applications that promise ideologically friendly hookups. (Because what’s worse than waking up with the enemy?) I avoid discussing politics with acquaintances of unknown political leanings, and close friends whose opinions I know all too well. This has made for banal exchanges in a year that is anything but.
Still, conflict-weary Argentines appear to support a shift toward moderation, though it comes with unexpected bedfellows. Presidential front-runner Alberto Fernández, along with his running mate, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, have adopted a mostly moderate tone and a focus on unity among diverse sectors of Argentina’s political, economic and social universe.
This approach is a core tenet of his inclusively named campaign, “Everybody’s Front,” which calls for a “social pact.” It will no doubt disappoint some die-hards on both sides but could be a much-needed national salve. They seem to have caught on to a new electoral truth: The country is tired of interminable and bilious divisions. Most people who inhabit the political center are exhausted by the vitriol. In lieu of rosy pledges, they’re calling for unity.
Mr. Fernández’s appeal for unity is pragmatic. The next administration faces an economic train wreck — huge debt incurred by the current government, a projected annual inflation rate of 50 percent, a rising poverty rate and dwindling dollar reserves that have been used to shore up the increasingly weak peso. Lawmakers, including those of Mr. Macri’s Cambiemos coalition, passed a national “food emergency” bill last month that will raise aid levels for the country’s neediest.
Restructuring the debt is sure to be one of the first items on the agenda. The incoming administration will have little immediate relief to offer Argentines in the midst of a deep economic recession. Some austerity measures will be inescapable, and Mr. Fernández’s attempt to create social pacts among stakeholders is essentially a way of buying time and complicity for a scenario that will be unmitigatedly grim.
Given the situation, Mr. Fernández’s strategy seems almost laughably optimistic: to convince diverse sectors with opposed interests that their only hope is to cede a bit to all pull in the same direction. Yet there are indications that key players are willing to play along with Mr. Fernández’s plan, at least initially. “Creer o morir” — believe or die — as we say here.
The front-runner has been notably successful at bringing previously irreconcilable parts to the negotiating table during this campaign season — from political parties and movements to long-divided and powerful trade unions. In a series of unity-focused proposals, he recently announced a national program to fight hunger that would ask businesses to lower food prices.
Mr. Fernández’s economic platform involves kick-starting production with agreements between business associations and the unions representing their workers about prices and wages moving forward. While the plans are optimistic, the candidate is emphatic that recovery will not be easy.
To stake out an anti-polarization platform while running on a ticket with one of the country’s most polarizing figures, Mr. Fernández needs to convince Argentines that he can balance the diverse forces within his coalition and that he’s not controlled by his vice president.
Critics have insistently portrayed the Everybody’s Front as a thinly veiled return to the Kirchner administrations. The fact that Mr. Fernández, a former chief of staff for both Kirchner presidents, was largely unknown outside of political circles before he was selected by Ms. Fernández de Kirchner to lead her ticket lends itself to such a vision. That’s certainly an issue. But he also was a strong opponent of the former president and was able to create a broad coalition that exceeds her electoral base.
If elected, Mr. Fernández will be forced to balance Kirchnerist demands with those of the Peronists and progressives he brought into his alliance. Nonetheless, moderates are wary about the electoral popularity of Ms. Fernández de Kirchner, though she has kept a low profile during the campaign. Only time will show if and how she’ll wield influence.
And of course, controlling a sitting president is trickier than conspiracy theories make it sound. In recent examples in the region of powerful leaders who anointed presidential successors with hopes of controlling them — Ecuador, Colombia and even Argentina itself in 2003 — the one hoping to be puppet master generally fared poorly.
Dare we dream about political divisions that are mostly confined to which street name we should honor? It is almost as optimistic as asking businesses to lower prices and unions to forgo pay raises.
“La grieta” cannot be ordered away by executive fiat. Mr. Fernández’s call could easily turn into mere lip service, which is precisely what happened when Mr. Macri assumed office nearly four years ago promising to end divisions. It will require a huge amount of cooperation and good will — like that Mr. Fernández seeks for the economy.
It’s a big leap, but perhaps we can learn from the compromise that was eventually reached with the Perón street: Today the last of its 46 blocks remains officially Cangallo. Whichever name you call it by, at least we’re all talking about the same thing.
Jordana Timerman is the editor of The Latin American Daily Briefing.