4/26/2024 - Politics and Society

The first one hundred days in the Executive - Legislative relationship

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The first one hundred days in the Executive - Legislative relationship

By Alejo Lasala and Loana Ibañez*.

The coming to power and the liberal resurgence

In order to understand the current relationship between the Executive - Legislative, we have to understand the arrival to power of an outsider lacking party organization and political affiliations after only two years in a seat as National Deputy. The origin of the liberal discourse can be traced back to a context of restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by what his mentor, Alberto Benegas Lynch, calls the "second Argentine miracle" after Juan Bautista Alberdi: the resurgence of "liberal" economic ideas, previously reviled as "neo-liberal", as opposed to statist interventionism. Moreover, the crisis favored by this same pandemic - recession, rising poverty and uncontrolled inflation, together with a high tax burden and a deficit in public spending - created the enabling environment, among other factors, for the popularity of a discourse that scorned deficit and monetary emission, promising shock policies and pointing to the establishment as a "caste" guilty of successive economic-political failures.

The strategy of conflict

The concept of conflict strategy arose in the international politics of the Cold War. Schelling sees three scenarios: pure conflict, pure cooperation or conflict/cooperation. In all these relationships there is an interdependence between the actors, which plays a preponderant role through deterrence: victory is not in combat but in influence. This is what Milei seems to focus on, by placing communication at the service of public opinion, without dwelling on polemics or political correctness. This, for many analysts, can be considered as a demonstration of institutional/political populism, where the leader seeks to rhetorically attack a figure he identifies as the enemy - the caste - blaming it for the evils caused by his inconsistent policies - or by his macroeconomic populism. In addition, this leader strengthens his direct connection with his followers and bases his legitimacy on the origin of his mandate (the electoral process), without the need for intermediaries, and weakening the relationship with the institutions of horizontal accountability, such as Congress.

A false step

On December 27, 2023, President Javier Milei submitted to Congress an ambitious "omnibus" bill, characterized by the diversity and number of issues it addressed, with the promise of being a considerable and heterogeneous reform of the State.

After weeks of intense negotiations and a significant reduction of approximately 50% of the bill's articles, it was approved in general by Congress. However, during the vote in particular, an unexpected twist occurred: votes that seemed to be favorable turned negative in key aspects, such as the delegation of powers. In view of this scenario, the ruling party withdrew the bill from the chamber.

The hyperminority of the ruling party

Both Milei's rise to the presidency, the search for reforms, the institutional conflict and the style of his leadership are crossed by a fundamental characteristic -or weakness-: the hyperminority in Congress. Since there was a minimal possibility of an electoral victory, different analysts warned about the impossibility for Milei to have enough partisan legislators to pass a law. At present, the Chamber of Deputies is formed by only 41 members of La Libertad Avanza, while in the Senate there are only 7, which shows the lowest percentage of pro-government seats since the return to democracy.

Hyperminority, in Latin America, is no friend of anti-establishment rhetoric - or political-institutional populism - insofar as it seeks to govern in a plebiscitary manner, while at the same time seeking to concentrate power supported by the legitimacy of origin. This can be seen in cases such as Peru, with Alberto Fujimori and Pedro Castillo: the former directly closed the Congress by means of a self-coup, while the latter was removed from office by impeachment after attempting to dissolve it. But can it really happen in Argentina?

The odds seem remote. The absence of an authoritarian vocation beyond the rhetorical can be glimpsed in the internal negotiation that required the approval -in general- of the omnibus law. In order to analyze the relationship between the Executive and the Legislature, it seems more appropriate to apply the reasoning of a conflict strategy, where dissuasion and influence are used as the tools of "the battle", with the aim of carrying out the adjustment and attempting deep reforms even without political support.

Likewise, during the opening of the extraordinary sessions called for March 1st at 9:00 p.m. -prime time-, President Milei called for an extensive agreement among all political actors -ex-presidents, governors and legislators- based on ten premises that could well resemble the Washington Consensus: the inviolability of private property, fiscal balance, reduction of public expenditure, tax, social security, political and labor reforms, rediscussion of co-participation, exploitation of natural resources, and opening to trade.

According to Mainwaring and Pérez Liñán, in turn, the real threat to democracy lies in the concentration of Presidential power, filling the three powers: those who manage to disarm the veto power of Congress, using it as a free way to pass laws and DNU through derisory majorities, as well as sub-national cases of competitive authoritarianism - Formosa -, suppressing political competition. Milei, at present, is not a strong president as long as he does not seek to detach himself from Congress as an institution of horizontal accountability. He is, as long as he maintains the dissuasive power transmitted by popular support, even in an unfavorable economic context. In this sense, and for the first time in a long time, the opposition demanded the constitution of the Bicameral Commission that deals with Emergency Necessity Decrees, a mechanism left aside in the multiple predecessor presidencies: only three DNU's were rejected since their existence, by the Legislative Branch: DNUs 256/2015, 102/2017 and 1053/2018, years after their enactment (2020). After the second false step, due to the rejection of DNU 70/30 "Bases for the reconstruction of the Argentine economy" in the Senate, it remains to know the decision in Deputies.

On the other hand, if we analyze who holds the pen when it comes to define candidates for senators, the governors have a key influence. Why does this happen? Basically, the governors need to obtain resources and in exchange they provide political support to their party at the national level. The labyrinth of co-participation and its parallel paths have created a redistributive system that Roberto Cachanosky (Argentine economist) defines negatively, since according to him, "governors have the political benefit of spending, but do not have the political cost of collecting", that is, of increasing the tax burden, and thus using co-participated resources from other provinces. In this way, legislators feel more conditioned to align themselves with the interests of their provinces, regardless of their political sign; something that used to happen with Senators, but not with Deputies.

This issue has created a system in which the Nation helps the provinces and CABA in a way that is difficult to follow for citizens, who must adjust month by month: the Trust Funds. This is one of the reasons that Milei uses to justify his quest to connect directly with citizens, reinforcing deterrence. Furthermore, national taxes that should serve the National State for its budgetary exercise end up being co-participated to provide resources to the provinces in exchange for a transitory political support, while once the tax is co-participated there is no turning back.

Therefore, the bases of governance are formed by the governors and the Legislative Branch, where both combine a strong veto power over the Executive Branch. However, the dynamic relationship between them is mediated by deterrence and the influence of public opinion. The most risky scenario for the government lies in the absolute loss of the governors' support; the search for impeachment in the chamber, but even more, in the disapproval of the citizenry.

The tool to strengthen cooperation among the actors lies in the hope of a new opportunity for agreement on May 25, but where the influence of public opinion still allows Milei to attack with the consensus of his own plan. A new failure could leave the government again in the turbulent situation after the rejection of the omnibus law, forcing it to continue, as Milei himself mentioned, squeezing the Executive's tools to adjust the economic accounts, anxiously waiting for improvements in inflation, since the popular approval of its mandate depends to a great extent on it.

Argentina has been familiar with political pacts and agreements throughout its history. Thanks to them, it has been able to move forward with the enactment and reforms of the National Constitution and the territorial union. When analyzing the constitution, we can still find the liberal principles derived from Alberdi's Bases and Points of Departure. For this reason, the May 25th Pact would have its counterpart in a new Law of Bases negotiated around that date, under liberal values and a budgetary rule that was practically non-negotiable: no more is spent than what is collected. This rule was also conceived by Néstor Kirchner through the Fiscal Responsibility Law, so it is not illogical to think of it as a State policy.

*Advanced students of Political Science and International Relations at the Universidad Católica Argentina.

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I am a Political Science student at UCA and a quality analyst in the Government of the City of Buenos Aires.

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