Trial And Error: President Mauricio Macri’s Political Strategy

Publicado en The Bubble

Ever since he took office, President Mauricio Macri has enacted policies, only to backpedal on them, time and time again. At first, this was seen as a show of humility. But now some people are wondering if this could be a sign of ignorance and improvisation. The tarifazo, or steep rate hikes, is proof of this.

One of the things the opposition used to hate about former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was her tenacity when it came to decision making. When she had to decide on something, she acted with an iron fist, without any hesitation. Fútbol para Todos (the nationalization of Argentine football) and the State takeover of Aerolíneas Argentina and oil company YPF were just some examples of the tough choices she made. They showed her strength.

What Kirchnerites saw as a virtue — a strong government making strong decisions — however, the opposition saw as an authoritarian bent. But the Macri administration may need a little more of it, instead of constantly going back on its decisions. This kind of “backwards strategy,” at first seen as humility and as a Zeitgeist change, may sooner or later crack the new administration.

A Different Strategy

Since Macri took office, the administration has focused on accomplishing one of its main campaign promises: getting the country out of the grieta, or deep political divide. In order to accomplish this task, Macri opted to show that one his objectives in the Casa Rosada was to “learn” about how to rule. This was seen as humility, or him keeping a low profile. He was distancing himself from Cristina’s manner of governing.

But soon thereafter, we began seeing a strange turn of events: Macri started to go back on his decisions. From little things (tweeting about not going to a political rally and then showing up as if nothing had happened) to critical ones (increasing service rates in a trial-by-error kind of way). This was the moment when the Macri administration’s storytelling started to show its flaws.

“These actions [the tarifazo] in particular reveals a lack of foresight or disdain regarding reactions. Macri seems to make decisions with no full analysis of the impact, but at the same time shows big flexibility to change them,” says Andy Tow, a political scientist at the National Congress. And, according to him, this is not something random: “But I also think that this is a test strategy, of seeing how much the rope can be pulled, always having white out on hand: if it flies, it flies.”

This strategy has a secondary benefit to Macri’s public image: “It is inevitable to make a comparison with Kirchnerism. They were much more about sustaining a decision until they won or were defeated. The thing is that flexibility implies weakness: it suggests improvisation, ignorance and lack of conviction,” Tow says. And maybe that’s why Cristina and Néstor Kirchner showed, over a 12-year mandate, a “no turning back” manner of ruling.

But of course, “it can also be seen as pragmatism, humility and being open to negotiation. Despite huge mistakes such as the tarifazo, this way of governing hasn’t worked out so badly: Macri has managed to choose two Supreme Court judges, pay the vulture funds, agree with governors, divide Peronism and lower political costs,” claims the political analyst.

The Ruling Strategy, If There Is One

How does this trial by error strategy work? Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña must ask himself that very question on the daily. The answer is simple: pragmatism. “In most cases, Macri’s strategy seems to be composed of three stages: collective deliberation, centralized decision and decentralized implementation,” argues Andrés Malamud, a political scientist of Lisbon University. What’s this about?

Collective deliberation, according to Malamud’s analysis, happens at the cabinet level and involves some kind of brainstorming. “Centralized decision is taken after listening to every position by the President on the most important cases, and Marcos Peña over other ones, and then every minister or government department implements and communicates the measure. It is a simple sketch, although it has been showing some coordination problems and, likely, results,” Malamud states.

Tow agrees with this, but adds the following component: Congress’ “give and take” logic. “I think that Macri commands in the areas in which he is competent, then receives proposals from other ministers and, with Peña, decides and passes them on the rest of his officials. In the Senate there is, however, some other kind of logic ruled by a pressure game played by governors and the judicial power.”

Maybe this is a simple blueprint, but with Kirchnerite experience in mind, this way of ruling is a paradigm shift. And whether Macri wanted to or not, it’s become his political strategy.

The thing is: there have to be limits.

Macri’s Boundaries: State Power Is No Matter of Doubt

Whether the President is adopting the right or wrong road in terms of political strategy is not the right question. But if we look at his term so far, we can try to predict how successful his government will be if it continues down this same path.

First of all, the long term may see some problems with this “trial-by-error” strategy: “It all will depend on the size of the mistakes he commits and the margin of error to correct them. The worst case scenario for him would be to pile them up and lose the alliances he’s been building since he took office,” Tow says.

Malamud is more skeptical: “Even though it was effective in the beginning, it has diminishing returns: what at first looks like humility later appears amateurish.” And he doesn’t see Macri’s strategy working out going forward: “This works while it’s fresh. Its repetition tires,” he claims.

Truth be told, there are some parameters to consider: “When it ends well, it’s ok,” says Malamud. And here is where the huge service increases, the so-called tarifazo, shows a big hole in Macri’s administration. When people, especially working class people, aren’t satisfied with the measure, the strategy shows its flaws. The judge’s decision to ban utility hikes and provide legal protection to consumers was a clear example of this: Energy Minister Aranguren’s announcements were stopped by the Judicial Power and the Executive had to bypass the increases.

We can also add that Macri’s way of communicating “doesn’t use traditional channels but alternatives, based on social media and user interaction. Although it’s surprising, this seems to have worked,” points out Malamud. This cocktail of improvisation and non presidential communication (political acts are not his strength, as Malamud says) could be something lethal in the future.

As a result of this, maybe it is time for Macri and his team to rethink their strategy. Maybe theZeitgeist he latched on to in December 2015 has changed. And maybe people are a little bit more worried about their salaries, inflation and jobs. If he continues to show this kind of doubt about ruling, maybe he should remember what a key 20st century thinker, Carl Schmitt, used to say: it is more important to decide and stay still rather than the decision itself.

Artículo original, en The Bubble

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