“On December 10 I will call for a government of national unity (…) The challenge we have is to build state policies. And democratic coexistence and the development of a new agenda must be a commitment of the entire leadership of Argentina”. Sergio Massa, October 1, 2023.
Most political systems foresee different formulas to face exceptional circumstances: states of alarm, emergency, war, or exception. All these tools coincide in a vanishing point: the concentration of the Executive Power. In other words, the aim is to enhance the capacity of the Executive to make quick decisions and put them into practice, avoiding the dispersion of political energy that usually entails partisan confrontations, blockages, and endless parliamentary debates.
Does it sound scandalous? Perhaps: it is tantamount to say that the very foundations of democracy involve a waste of political energy. Before this, there are three points to be clarified in this regard. The first is that democracy is not a perfect system. It does have its drawbacks. On the other hand, his fact does not detract from the fact that it offers more benefits than any other system we know.
Second clarification, in light of the previous one: in reality, we do not even live in pure democracies, but in mixed systems. However, this requires explanations that exceed the space available, and that can be found in Polybius’ Histories.
The third clarification is that the need to concentrate power in critical moments is not a discovery of the 21st century: the Roman Republic had the figure of the dictator, who condensed power for a limited time and with limited powers (just as in our state of exception) to face stormy times. Neither then nor now is it a question of placing all power in the hands of a despot: the Roman dictator and the current head of government in a state of emergency are below the law.
Government of National Unity
The government of national unity belongs to a different category than the previous mechanisms but is strongly linked to them. This is due to the objectives shared: to avoid the dispersion of executive energy in political confrontations; to strengthen the Executive by providing it with the support of several — perhaps all — political forces to face a critical circumstance. We have a recent and crystalline example: Israel, whose politics had been extremely polarized for more than a year over a judicial reform project, quickly formed a government of national unity to face the crisis derived from the massive terrorist attack perpetrated by Hamas on October 7.
A government of national unity is also the response offered by Sergio Massa to the critical situation Argentina is going through. Hence, a first observation: to consider that Argentina is going through an exceptional circumstance, and not a structural, permanent crisis, seems to be a considerable diagnostic error. This, which may seem superficial, has notable consequences, which will be seen in the third observation. Even so, why not convene a government of national unity to address this crisis?
The question leads us to the second observation: a government of national unity is not a government that co-opts individual figures from other parties. It is a government that brings those parties together as a whole, to avoid the government-opposition dynamics of ordinary times, which would prevent the Executive from acting with all the vigor that the circumstances require. In other words: having a few leaders of an opposition party who individually enter the government will not prevent the parties to which they belong (or used to belong) from hindering the government’s work.
Third observation: a government of national unity is not a coalition government. The difference is the commitment of the participants and the tightness of the ranks. In an exceptional situation, the political forces grouped in a government of national unity understand that the country itself is at stake and that there is no room for politicking, betrayals, ordeals, or conditions. They are all on the same page. Power games are left for another time. On the other hand, a coalition government may break up, may be subject to tensions among its members, may… Do you remember, reader, Cristina and Cobos? That is why it is important to differentiate ordinary times from exceptional times.
Fourth observation: having members of other parties within the Executive, even if it is with the organic support of those formations, does not guarantee national unity. Let us return to the example of Cristina and Cobos. Therein lies the fundamental problem of Massa’s proposal: its success depends on political forces located on the other side of the rift. Just listen to Milei’s statements after the first round: “I am willing to make a tabula rasa, shuffle and give again, with the aim of ending Kirchnerism”. The saying goes that two do not fight if one does not want to. But neither do they reconcile if one does not want to.
Fifth observation, and undoubtedly the most essential: Massa is right. Argentina urgently needs state policies. It has needed them for forty years. But state policies mean precisely the opposite of what he proposes: they are policies agreed with the opposition, not with the government itself, although the latter incorporates some figures from other parties.
In any case, what is of interest is to make a long-range reading. One way is to confront Massa’s proposal with Milei’s words. And what this reading reveals are the wounds opened by 20 years of populism. It is the price that any president will have to pay. But more clearly than anyone else, Massa will face it if he tries to form something similar to a government of national unity. What Kirchnerism divided for two decades, unfortunately, will not be fixed in a few seconds by a blunt but syrupy statement like the one made by the Peronist candidate after the first round: “The rift is dead”. At the same time, Milei was shouting that he would put an end to Kirchnerism.
Final remark: the government of national unity is not about handing out ministries. It is not governing with all: it is governing for all.
*Translated by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva from the original in Spanish.