December 14, 2017

The week

Friday, April 21, 2017

Could the libertarians (and anarchists) be right?

President Mauricio Macri greets his Swiss colleague Doris Leuthard, two countries with very different dimensions of state.
By Michael Soltys / Senior Editor

There might not seem too much connection between a think tank report on the public sector issued over Easter and this week’s two-day visit by the Swiss president but the contrasting messages which might be gleaned from these two developments could tell us something.

The think tank report reached the disturbing conclusion that the state had expanded 25 percent under a Mauricio Macri presidency supposedly dedicated to undoing the hyper-interventionism of the Kirchner years — if last week we were recalling the 30th anniversary of the Easter mutiny, the Raúl Afonsín presidency of those times limited itself to a Cabinet of just eight ministers while Macri has inflated the number of portfolios to 21. This multiplication of ministries has added to costs while rendering policy-making more confused, especially in the economic area.

How many readers would have been able to name the President of the Swiss Confederation (Doris Leuthard) before this week? Probably none because national government in Switzerland is little more than a legislative council and yet that country runs like clockwork. What should this be telling Macri?

Yet despite that critical report, Macri is not the prime culprit when it comes to bloated state payrolls — he only heads some 740,000 of Argentina’s 3.5-million-plus public employees (from 460,000 in 2003) while provincial overmanning accounts for almost two-thirds with the remainder employed by town halls (whose mayors sometimes like to put their names on police patrol cars).

As it happened, on Tuesday Macri not only met up with the visiting Swiss president but also with provincial governors (or around half of them) to discuss a federal plan for state modernisation so that would logically have been an apt opportunity to start biting the bullet on streamlining. But that was never going to happen in an election year. Apart from Modernisation Minister Andrés Ibarra claiming to have trimmed the central administration by six percent, the issue of job cuts was largely skirted — instead Macri and the dozen governors present signed a generic agreement towards more transparency, technology and planning and less red tape in an upgraded civil service.


In general the country has been making a slow return to work after Easter and the election campaign has yet to begin in earnest but this week saw the first big hat tossed into the ring — namely the maverick government back-bencher Elisa Carrió, who was also a major generator of this week’s news on another front with her intensified crusade against Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti (see the editorial on page 13).

Carrió defined her candidacy in two phases — at Mirtha Legrand’s luncheon show last Sunday (as important a political forum as any in these post-modern times, improbable as that might sound) she ruled out Buenos Aires province and on Wednesday she confirmed that she would be seeking re-election to her Lower House seat in this City (always her political hunting-ground ever since she moved from her native Chaco in 2003).

That choice of her comfort zone in this middle-class metropolis where her civic and institutional themes carry more weight than elsewhere should not come as too much of a surprise — the pressures on her to run in Buenos Aires province almost exclusively stemmed from the perception of her as a saviour for the uphill battle in by far the most populous province whose Greater Buenos Aires industrial belt sees itself as on the wrong end of Macri’s economic policies and where a generally fading ex-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner retains around a third of the vote. Yet the odds were always against Carrió assuming this sacrificial role in this vast and unfamiliar territory where she has gripes with various leading government figures in the province (starting with a presidential cousin, Vicente López Mayor Jorge Macri, and continuing with provincial Security Minister Cristina Ritondo) — she also told Mirtha Legrand that she did not see Governor María Eugenia Vidal (one of the few people she exempts from criticism) as all that keen on her candidacy.

When throwing her hat into the City ring, Carrió somewhat unilaterally made it clear that her candidacy was strictly for the October 22 midterm elections and not for the August 13 PASO primaries where she will not accept internal rivals — this explicitly excludes her erstwhile ally Martín Lousteau (who resigned the Washington embassy early this month specifically for that purpose), also causing disarray among the Radicals, the Civic Coalition and other members of Macri’s centre-right PRO within the ruling Let’s Change coalition. The argument of Lousteau and others is that Let’s Change should be formalised in the Federal Capital, thus opening the way for primaries contested by its various partners, instead of the choice of candidacies being up to PRO and hence effectively City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta.

Meanwhile Carrió continues full tilt against Lorenzetti, thus placing Macri in an awkward position — on the one hand, several key government policies hinge on Supreme Court decisions and on the other, he values his charismatic maverick as both an electoral asset and as a safety valve channelling various public frustrations. Their spat is not merely personal, as Macri would like to think, but also institutional.

Carrió has thus played her hand but the three main expressions of Peronism — CFK for Kirchnerism, ex-minister Florencio Randazzo as the dark horse of the more moderate strands and the dissident Renewal Front’s Sergio Massa (who would need to run this year if he is to continue in Congress and who has plenty of seats on the line from his 2013 triumph) — are all holding their cards close to the chest as phantom candidates.

Meanwhile parliamentary activity remains a casualty of an election year, as usually happens — and all the more so with a minority government. With countless bills in the pipeline (including such key economic areas as curbing corruption and bolstering capital markets), Congress actually managed to session on Wednesday for the first time since being inaugurated at the start of March and approved the one legislative item on which everybody could agree — something to ensure the supply of electricity to medical equipment.

This inactivity actually suits the Macri government’s strategy of polarising the electorate against Kirchnerism (a strategy hugely encouraged by the success of the “1-A” pro-government marches at the start of this month) — any serious attempt to pass legislation would bring to the fore the non-Kirchnerite opposition whose votes would be needed.


Early March was also when school classes were supposed to start, as well as Congress spring into action. But the pay dispute with teachers (already into its seventh week) now looks like dragging on into May, as does the “itinerant school” erected outside Congress (whose permit has been extended a further fortnight), even if it seems to have subsided into low-intensity warfare. There was no breakthrough when Vidal’s government presented its latest offer at the start of the week but no renewed strike action either. This sparked optimism in government circles although some serious sticking-points persist — Vidal’s insistence on factoring into any agreement a crackdown on absenteeism (which the unions virtually see as an acquired right) and collective bargaining at national level, where the teachers see Macri as being in contempt of court after this was upheld by a magistrate’s ruling.

Meanwhile the judicial branch is not sharing the extreme inactivity of the legislative with various news items so far this week. Among other developments, Federal Judge Sebastián Casanello declared himself non-competent to investigate the Panama Papers charges involving offshore accounts of the Macri family; appeals court judge Eduardo Freiler was hauled up before the Magistrates Council on Tuesday to explain his apparent wealth; Casanello’s colleague Rodolfo Canicoba Corral is to be investigated on charges of receiving bribes from the notoriously extortionate (and now jailed) longshoremen’s union leader Omar “Caballo” Suárez; various judges are filing to stay beyond the retirement age of 75.

No space here to to enter into the debate both within and beyond the government over the high interest rates imposed by Central Bank Governor Federico Sturzenegger (the real economy minister according to many) but it might be worth adding that the bank’s autonomy could also be threatened from within — the Peronist majority in the Senate is pushing its right to place its nominees on Sturzenegger’s board of directors.

Finally, weekly summaries should not necessarily be limited to the political and business pages but may also reach out to the culture and sports sections. Here the displacement of the INCAA film board head has been repudiated by a surprisingly broad front of the cinematic world while the brutal Easter weekend slaying of a Córdoba soccer fan (see pages 14 and 44) should shock us.

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