Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The undying link between Communism and Fascism

Buenos Aires

Argentine President Cristina Kirchner has not yet declared herself a candidate in the October presidential election, but her government and her party—the Kirchner wing of the Peronists—are already in full campaign-mode.

In recent weeks "la presidenta" has taken another aggressive step toward consolidating her economic power by trying to force publicly listed companies to grant the government seats on their corporate boards. She is also on a state spending spree despite alarming inflation data. The press remains, as it has been for some time, under pressure from the government and its organized-labor allies to engage in self-censorship.

It is once again a worrying time for this once-prosperous republic. Somehow civil society and some of the government institutions crucial to democracy have survived eight years of Kirchner demagoguery and its creeping authoritarianism. But few observers here are confident that the nation's battered political pluralism, now hanging by a thread, could make it through another four years of kirchnerismo.

One school of thought says that since the Kirchners (the Mrs. and her late husband, Néstor, who was president before her) have turned Argentina into an economic time bomb, she should be the one asked to hold it for the next four years. Her policies are generating an annual inflation rate that private-sector economists estimate at around 25%-30%. The government's antibusiness bias and judicial insecurity have damaged investment flows, and energy shortages are growing. When all this comes acropper, if there is any justice, the blame for the hardship ought to land in Mrs. Kirchner's lap.

AFP/Getty Images

Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Argentina's Cristina Kirchner combine inflation, repression and heavy state control of the economy.

Yet granting Mrs. Kirchner another term is also fraught with danger. Given her lust for power, she is likely to continue copying her Venezuelan mentor Hugo Chávez, who over 12 years has steadily demolished the economic, political and legal mechanisms that ordinarily act as checks on the executive. By 2015, she could have the country in lock down.

Consider the latest assault on free enterprise, which really began in 2008, when she announced the confiscation and nationalization of private pension accounts. This made the government a shareholder in 42 publicly traded companies in which the pension managers had invested. On April 14 of this year Mrs. Kirchner issued a decree giving the government increased power to name directors in these companies.

The steel maker Siderar, now 26% owned by the government, is resisting. At a recent shareholders' meeting the board announced a dividend and rejected the government's request for a seat. The government securities regulator responded by voiding the meeting. Siderar has gone to court to challenge the regulator's decision, and the government has countersued.

There is no mystery here. Mrs. Kirchner is following the economic theories not only of Mr. Chávez but also of Juan Peron, the 20th-century Argentine fascist who gave her party its name. She wants state control over industry to shore up her power.

That would dovetail nicely with her domination of what was once an independent central bank. Since last year the bank has transferred more than $16 billion to her treasury in exchange for government bonds. Yet the government still generated a fiscal deficit of $1.3 billion in March, implying that no matter how much money it gets its hands on, it is never enough.

What is more, at the end of February the Argentine money supply was up 28.6% year over year. And in recent months independent analysts who put out inflation numbers that do not agree with the government estimate (now around 10%) have been fined.

For students of Argentina's past, this picture of inflation, repression and state control of the economy is all too familiar. And it is the reason that the opposition, despite many differences, is now engaged in an effort to unite. Mrs. Kirchner's re-election, should she choose to run, is likely but far from certain if there is only one opposition candidate.

Yet any such deal still looks a long way off. Hopes for an alliance between Federal Peronists (who oppose thekirchnerista Peronists) and the center-right mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, waned last week after a Federal Peronists' primary generated an exceedingly low turn-out and was riddled with charges of fraud.

Now speculation is growing that Mr. Macri may opt instead to run for a second mayoral term this year and keep his powder dry for the 2015 presidential election. That would leave Ricardo Alfonsin of the left-of-center Radical Party and son of a former president as the most likely challenger to Mrs. Kirchner.

Most of the center-right would have to hold their noses to vote for Mr. Alfonsin. Yet if he positions himself ever-so-slightly to her right, and he gets backing from the popular Federal Peronist Francisco de Narvaez, he could force Mrs. Kirchner into a second round runoff. In that case, her odds of victory would be severely diminished. For many Argentines that would be a compromise worth making.

No comments: