When I asked world-renown Chilean novelist Isabel Allende, during a wide-ranging interview, about recent polls showing that Argentina’s former populist leader Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner could win the Oct. 27 elections, she shook her head in disapproval and gave a brutally honest answer: “Argentina is a politically immature country.”
Allende was referring to Argentina’s penchant to elect followers of late populist President Juan Perón, despite the fact that most Peronist leaders have ruined what, until the early 20th century, was one of the world’s richest countries. Allende added during the wide-ranging interview that Argentines “elect the strangest people. No offense to my Argentine friends, but that’s the way we see them from outside.”
She is right, of course. Immaturity, according to most dictionaries, is a failure to grow up. And Argentina’s main problem has been its childish behavior of perennially living beyond its means, and — as we last saw during Fernandez de Kirchner’s term — blaming others when the party is over.
Polls show that there is a chance that Argentines could elect Fernandez de Kirchner’s populist ticket in this year’s elections. Most polls show Fernandez de Kirchner slightly ahead or even with current President Mauricio Macri, who is running for re-election.
The former president, who served from 2007 to 2015, announced recently that she will run as vice president, appointing her former chief of staff Alberto Fernandez as her ticket’s presidential candidate.
Alberto Fernandez, who is not related to her and has been an on-and-off critic of her policies in recent years, may have been her pick in an effort to reach out to moderate voters. Some speculate that Fernandez de Kirchner decided to run for vice president in order not to allow her current corruption trial to spoil her campaign, and that she will later change the ticket and place herself in the No. 1 spot.
But “immaturity” may be too kind a word to describe Argentina’s behavior if Fernandez de Kirchner is once again elected. It would be more accurate to call it stupidity, or political masochism.
Fernandez de Kirchner’s scandal-ridden government benefited from the biggest economic bonanza in her country’s recent memory thanks to the rise of world prices of soybeans and other Argentine agricultural exports. And yet, she managed to leave the country bankrupt.
Instead of using that economic windfall to improve health and education standards, build major infrastructure projects, turn the country into a magnet for foreign investments in industries of the future and saving for economic downturn cycles, Fernandez de Kirchner squandered it on social subsidies. It was quintessential populism: instant gratification, at the expense of long-term progress.
Between 2010 to 2015, during Fernandez de Kirchner’s term, the number of households that received government subsidies in Argentina rose from 40.7 percent to 59.3 percent, according to government figures. During the Macri government, that figure went only slightly down, to 56.9 percent, in part because Macri did not dare to make drastic cuts that he feared would spark social protests and make the country ungovernable.
Government officials tell me that Macri reduced corruption in the allocation of the subsidies he inherited, and forced many recipients to send their children to school or look for jobs in exchange for getting them.
Maybe so, but the fact remains that Argentina is a country where a minority of 7.8 million people who work in the private sector are subsidizing 18.8 million people who receive government payments, including handouts, pensions and government jobs. That’s unsustainable in any country in the world.
In a recent interview, Macri’s image maker and political adviser, Jaime Durán Barba, told me that he’s still confident that, despite the latest economic downturn, Macri will be re-elected. He said that memories are still fresh of Fernandez de Kirchner’s massive corruption, make-believe economic statistics and disdain for democratic institutions. Most voters won’t want to return to the past, he said.
Let’s hope that’s the case. Electing Fernandez de Kirchner’s ticket would be the ultimate act of political immaturity It would condemn Argentina to a new period of fictitious wellbeing, followed by even greater economic decline and poverty.
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