Messi and Argentina’s World Cup run dampens dreaded ‘December effect’

Lionel Scaloni’s team play France in the tournament final in Qatar on Sunday, providing relief for a political class facing fresh protests as is often the case in the year’s final month

Fans celebrate in Buenos Aires after the Argentina soccer team qualified for the World Cup final in Qatar, December 13, 2022.
Fans celebrate in Buenos Aires after the Argentina soccer team qualified for the World Cup final in Qatar, December 13, 2022.EMILIANO LASALVIA (AFP)

December tends to be a difficult month for Argentina’s politicians. The history began in 2001, when the Corralito crisis limiting cash withdrawals to the equivalent of $250 a week sparked riots and led then president Fernando de la Rúa to flee the Casa Rosada by helicopter. Following his resignation, Argentina had four different presidents in the space of two weeks, and the violent repression of street protests in Buenos Aires led to the deaths of 39 people. Ever since then, successive Argentinean governments have prepared for the worst in December. The final month of the year fuels the grievances of the country’s most disadvantaged citizens and protests are growing in the streets; labor unions are calling for salary increases or bonuses to offset inflation, which is forecast to stand at almost 100% at the end of 2022. It has been an especially complicated year for President Alberto Fernández. Four out of 10 Argentines are living below the poverty line, and the Peronist alliance in the Casa Rosada has been fractured by former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner being handed a six-year sentence for corruption. But in the eye of the storm, Leo Messi and the Argentina national soccer team have reached the final of the World Cup in Qatar, handing Fernández brief respite from domestic unrest.

In Argentina, people are talking about nothing else. Victory over Croatia last Tuesday in the semifinals has shaped the public discourse. Families discuss where they will watch the final against France on Sunday, and politicians are keeping their heads down to avoid attracting attention. The prospect of winning the World Cup for the first time since 1986 is so all-consuming that few people noticed Fernandez celebrating three years of his presidency and the 39th anniversary of the country’s return to democracy on Wednesday.

Fernández did so in the gardens of the Casa Rosada, where the 1,000 chairs laid out were half-empty, underlining the divisions among Peronists. There were on Kirchnerist ministers, and only one of Argentina’s 23 governors made the trip to Buenos Aires. The social movements that have links to the Government barely participated. In short, Peronism was conspicuous by its absence. Fernández delivered a long speech in which he said will assume leadership of the campaign for the 2023 general elections. The president was the only speaker at an event usually held in the Plaza de Mayo in downtown Buenos Aires, in a festive atmosphere with orators of every persuasion.

Although he has been flirting with seeking re-election for months, Fernández’s popularity rating is at rock bottom. Fernández de Kirchner’s decision not to put herself forward as a candidate has shaken the Peronist faction, who must now seek a heavyweight substitution for the former president. Fernández’s name is not top of the list of preferences: Economy Minister Sergio Massa – who did not attend Wednesday’s celebrations – whose political future is linked to tackling rampant inflation and poverty, and Minister of the Interior Eduardo de Pedro, who is Fernández de Kirchner’s eyes and ears, currently lead the running. Other names may yet emerge from the country’s governors, the traditional reservoir of Peronist candidates.

In the meantime, everyone is counting on soccer to keep the peace. If Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni leads the national side to victory in Qatar there will be days and days of celebration, leading into Christmas and New Year. In January, the high season for summer holidays in Argentina begins. By then, the danger will have passed. If Argentina loses, the World Cup hangover will be less effective, but the team’s place in the final is enough to ensure that January will be reached without too much trouble.

The government has a silver bullet ready in either case: an end-of-year bonus for lower-income wage earners and another one for the millions of Argentines who receive social benefits are on the agenda. These will reach 4.4 million people and will serve to calm the simmering discontent among households most-affected by the crisis. The combination of the World Cup and extra money is Argentina’s defense against the “December effect.”

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