January 03, 2016

Argentina: Bad News for the Left

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE surprise victory of Mauricio Macri, a multimillionaire businessman in the presidential elections in Argentina on November 22, marks a comeback for the Right in the country's politics after a long gap. Macri won narrowly, getting just 51 percent of the votes polled. He will be taking over a highly polarised nation. All the same, the result is being viewed as not only a setback for Argentinians but also for the Left in the entire region. It is for the first time in 15 years that an incumbent Left wing government holding office has been defeated. The losing candidate of the ruling “Front for Victory” party, Daniel Scioli, was handpicked by the outgoing president, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, to succeed her. The Left wing faction of the Peronistas have been in power since 2003, when Nestor Kirchner was first elected to the presidency. His wife Christina succeeded him in 2007. She could not run again due to constitutionally mandated term limits. The defeat of Scioli was especially surprising because Christina and her social empowerment policies were popular with the masses. Scioli, like the eventual winner, Macri, also comes from a very privileged background. Both of them are also sport enthusiasts. Marci ran one of the most popular football clubs, Boca Juniors while Scioli was a champion speed boat racer. The Kirchners had rescued Argentina from an economic morass and raised the standard of living of the poor. Some of the tough decisions they took to take the country out of recession and generate employment had earned them powerful enemies among the Argentinian elite. During their rule, they were among the steadfast supporters of the Cuban revolution. They also stood solidly behind Venezuela as it withstood Washington's attempts at destabilisation. In the last 13 years under the Kirchners, poverty fell by around 70 percent and extreme poverty by almost 80 percent. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) unemployment figures during the period had fallen to 6.9 percent from a high of 17.2 percent. But the last couple of years were not too good for the Argentine economy as the prices of commodities fell globally. The Argentine economy had come to depend a lot on commodity exports. The global economic slowdown had an adverse impact on Argentina. For the last four years, economic growth has been less than two percent. Inflation had become a problem yet again with the dollar selling high on the black market. There were also reports of corrupt activities by senior officials in the Kirchner government. Macri and his center right “Let's Change” party, with the help of skilful campaign strategists imported from outside, managed to convince a significant section of the electorate that he was the man who could turn things around. On the campaign trail, Macri, who was the mayor of Buenos Aires portrayed himself as a populist in the Peronist mold. During the course of the campaign, he even unveiled a statue of Juan Peron, the former president and founder of the Peronist movement. It was however the split in the Peronist movement that eventually helped him to win. Scioli, the official Peronist candidate, could have won in the first round itself but for the presence of a dissident Peronist, Sergio Massa in the field. Only 45 percent of votes polled was enough to be elected in the first round itself. Scioli had come on top in the first round but Massa came a close third with 20 percent of the vote. In the final round too, many right wing Peronists preferred to vote for Macri. Historically, there has been a right and Left wing stream in the Peronist movement. Carlos Menem, though nominally a Peronist, ushered in neo-liberal programmes, during his presidency. Macri, the candidate of the center-right had assured the electorate that he would not slash social spending and anti-poverty programmes that the Left wing government had launched since it came to power in 2003. The poor in Argentina like their compatriots in Brazil and some other Latin American countries are dependent on government cash subsidies for survival. Macri had also promised that he would not privatise big State owned companies like the national air lines and YPF, the country's biggest oil company. But there already is growing pressure from the private sector in Argentina and the West to roll back many of the reforms initiated in the last thirteen years. One of Macri’s favorite books is Ayn Rand's “The Fountainhead”. The book is an ode to the capitalist way of life. Macri had previously said that he is against government playing a role in promoting industries and had proposed tax cuts for the rich. This could mean that very soon there could be cuts in social spending as the budget will have to be trimmed. Almost immediately after the results were announced, Macri started showing his true conservative colors. There are strong indications that he may have a rethink on the continuation of human rights trials pertaining to the murderous military rule from 1976-83. Many senior army officers including a former military ruler have been sent to prison for their role in the thousands of disappearances and murders that characterised that period. Macri and his supporters prefer “reconciliation” to trials. Reconciliation as has been witnessed in countries like South Africa is another word for forgive and forget. Macri has said that under his presidency, there will be a shift in the country's foreign policy. In the last 13 years, Argentine was part of the progressive bloc of nations in the region. The “pink tide” that had swept Latin America in the beginning of the last decade had brought to power Left wing governments. Only a few countries like Colombia continued to remain in the orbit of Washington. Macri evidently wants to take Argentina back under America's foreign policy tutelage. Immediately after being elected, he told the media that one of his priorities would be to improve relations with Washington. He will need help to negotiate with foreign creditors who have sued Argentina in American courts for unpaid debts. Vulture funds are preventing 90 percent of Argentina's creditors from being paid after they got a ruling from a New York court in their favour. There are strong indications that Macri will in fact help Washington to push its hegemonic agenda in the region. He may also soft pedal on the “Malvinas” (Falkland) island dispute with the Britain in his bid to improve relations with the West. The Kirchner government had taken a tough line on the subject, calling it an issue of decolonisation and raised the issue in the UNSC. Argentina and Britain had fought a short but bitter war over the islands in the 1980's. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, said that the United States was looking forward to working with Macri “to promote regional security and prosperity, and to enhance human development and human rights”. Macri told the media in Buenos Aires during his first press conference after the election results were out, that he would try to get Venezuela ejected from the Common Market of the South (Mercosur) regional trade grouping on the grounds that the government in Caracas was allegedly infringing on the democratic rights of the people. Macri's statement came just a fortnight before the Venezuelans were scheduled to go to the polls. Venezuela is the only country in the region that holds election almost on a yearly basis with observers from around the world present. The Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa, said that the Argentine leader's remarks were a “clear interference in the internal affairs of Venezuela”. Macri is a committed ally of the right wing opposition in Venezuela. The president elect has hinted that he would also review a contract signed with China to build a nuclear power station. Macri also seems keen to undermine his country's relations with Iran. The Argentine government had signed an agreement with Iran to jointly investigate the bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994. Without providing any proof, the Israeli government and their supporters in the western media have been alleging that the terror attack which killed 85 people was ordered at the highest level of the Iranian government. There were attempts by Christina Kirchner's opponents to link her government with an alleged “cover-up” of the incident. Reacting to the Macri's statements, Christina Kirchner observed that the “person with the responsibility of leading the homeland should know the right place for the Argentine republic in a multipolar world”. Christina Kirchner in all probability will continue to play a leading role in the politics of the country. She will continue to remain the preeminent Peronist leader. “I won't be president after December 10 but I will always be there for the people when I'm needed”, she recently told thousands of her cheering supporters. Argentinians call her their most charismatic politicians since the time of the legendary Eva Peron. Despite the opposition victory in the presidential election, the Peronists will continue to have a decisive say in the country's politics. It has the majority in the Senate, the largest presence in the lower house of parliament and the governorship of 15 out of 24 provinces in the country. In recent history, no non-Peronist president has managed to complete his term of office in Argentina.