BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — I talked with more than half a dozen leading politicians from across the political spectrum during a week-long visit to Argentina, but what struck me the most is what I heard from a Venezuelan taxi driver. He was one of the estimated 170,000 Venezuelans who have fled to this country in recent years.
He told me, “Argentines don’t know what they’re getting into.”
Like many native Argentines, the recent immigrant fears a leftist populist comeback in Argentina’s Oct. 27 presidential elections. He speculated that Argentina may head toward a Venezuela-style radical leftist regime — what some here call a potential “Argenzuela.”
There is a sense of near certainty in Argentina that the leftist populist ticket of presidential candidate Alberto Fernandez and his former boss — ex-president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, now running for vice-president — will win the elections.
Center-right President Mauricio Macri, a close friend of the United States, is running for re-election and hoping for a major upset. But most TV presenters here sound as if the race already is over, and the Fernandez-Fernandez ticket has won.
In an Aug. 11 primary, which served as an informal poll, the Fernandez-Fernandez ticket won by a landslide. And since then, Argentina’s already-bad economic situation has gotten worse, in part because of massive capital flight in anticipation of a possible Fernandez victory.
Many Venezuelan exiles here warn Argentines about the danger of an “Argenzuela” scenario. But polls show that Argentines are too worried about their declining personal income to learn lessons from a distant country.
In fact, Macri inherited much of Argentina’s current economic mess. During the 2003-2015 governments of late President Nestor Kirchner and then his wife, Cristina, Argentina benefited from an unprecedented commodity price boom. But the Kirchners squandered that bonanza on populist subsidies and massive corruption.
Argentina’s public spending almost doubled during the Kirchner governments, from 23 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2002 to more than 42.2 percent in 2015. Today, Argentina has 9 million people working in the private sector, effectively maintaining 15.3 million who are paid by the government, according to International Monetary Fund estimates.
Chronic overspending has turned Argentina into an unviable country, and Macri — fearing a social uprising — failed to turn the economy around.
Alberto Fernandez has sent some worrisome signals since the August primaries. He said that Venezuela is not a dictatorship, despite the fact that there have been more than 6,800 extrajudicial executions in Venezuela over the past year and a half, according to the United Nations. And he has said that he would seek warmer ties with Spain than with the United States, a major gaffe by a presidential candidate who would badly need U.S. help to renegotiate Argentina’s massive foreign debt.
All of that fuels speculation that a Fernandez win would trigger more capital flight, as the nation saw the day after the August primary, worsen the economic situation and take Argentina back to the not-so-distant past in which the Kirchner governments blamed the United States and the International Monetary Fund — rather than Argentina’s chronic habit of spending more than it produces — for the country’s economic crisis.
But, judging from what I heard from Alberto Fernandez when I interviewed him years ago, he’s a pragmatic populist. It remains to be seen whether he would be Cristina Fernandez’s puppet. Argentina’ s history is full of presidents who betrayed their political bosses.
While Cristina Fernandez would be president of the Senate, commanding many of the country’s governors and some of the biggest workers’ unions, it’s possible that Alberto Fernandez could build a powerful base once in office.
It’s unlikely, but not impossible, that Macri will win in October, or at least win enough seats in Congress to prevent a leftist takeover of Argentina’s key democratic institutions, as happened in Venezuela.
I foresee turbulent times in Argentina unless Fernandez and Macri agree on a national unity government that would attack Argentina’s economic disease — chronic overspending — rather than just try to cure its symptoms. If that doesn’t happen, my Venezuelan taxi driver may be proven right, and Argentina might continue its downhill slide.
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