Recession emboldens Argentina’s opposition
Asked recently to rate his first year as Argentina’s president, Mauricio Macri gave himself eight out of ten. Some immodesty is justified. Almost overnight after taking office Mr Macri dismantled the populist policies of his predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. He eased currency controls; had the national statistics institute stop massaging inflation figures; and resolved a dispute with holders of overdue government debt, restoring Argentina’s access to capital markets.
Argentines have been less generous with praise. Mr Macri promised that by now confidence would be back and healthy growth would ease the pain of his reforms. Instead the economy remains sickly: GDP will shrink by 1.8% in 2016, says the IMF. In October industrial production fell by 8%, year on year; construction collapsed by 19%. One in 12 Argentines is out of work. Inflation may no longer be misreported, but looks stuck at 35%. With incomes crimped, households are spending 7.5% less on basic goods than in 2015, estimates CCR, a consultancy.
Lacking a majority in congress, until recently the president could at least count on disarray among rivals. The dominant Peronist movement once held together by Ms Fernández fractured after her candidate’s defeat by Mr Macri: moderates backed some of his ideas; hardliners refused to. With growth prospects receding, the two camps have put their differences aside.
In November Sergio Massa, a moderate Peronist, proposed raising the amount of income exempt from tax by 60%. This would please cash-strapped voters, but stretch the budget by 0.6% of GDP, equivalent to a year’s spending on public works. The opposition pushed the measure through the lower house on December 6th. The senate may do so on December 21st.
That would leave Mr Macri in a bind: signing the bill would scotch his plans to trim the deficit in 2017 from 7.2% to 6.8% of GDP; a veto may fuel a public backlash. He has been courting the country’s governors, hoping they talk sense to senators. Provinces stand to lose out if Mr Massa gets his way: income taxes are shared between the federal and regional governments.
A compromise, perhaps involving a lower threshold, is not out of reach. But the episode has already cast doubt over Mr Macri’s ability to complete the reforms—to rigid labour rules or bloated bureaucracy—that Argentina still needs. Observers see it as a portent that his Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition cannot live up to its name, says Jimena Blanco of Verisk Maplecroft, a consultancy.
Mr Macri may be hoping that opponents will find it harder to obstruct his proposals once economic revival proves these are working. The government forecasts growth of 3.5% in 2017, helped by farm exports and an end to a wrenching recession in Brazil, Argentina’s biggest trading partner. But neither looks assured. Brazil’s recovery has disappointed. And trade may suffer as more countries turn protectionist. Mr Macri’s second year may be more testing than his first.