Sunday, May 26, 2024

ARGENTINA | 29-04-2024 14:59

Lower house opens debate on Milei's 'omnibus' reform package

Chamber of Deputies opens debate on President Javier Milei's 'omnibus' reform package; Session expected to stretch into Tuesday and last at least 30 hours.

Argentina’s lower house opened debate on President Javier Milei’s so-called ‘omnibus’ reform package on Monday, with a new slashed-down version of the mega reform bill replacing the overstuffed edition that failed in Congress two months ago.

Milei, 53, and his administration were forced to removed hundreds of articles from the original 644 contained in the so-called ‘Ley de Bases y Puntos de Partida para la Libertad de los Argentinos’ (“Law of Bases and Starting Point for the Freedom of Argentines”) during negotiations with lawmakers. The new bill contains around 230 articles. 

Unions, opposition parties and social organisations have called for regular demonstrations in rejection of the bill outside the National Congress building for the next two days.

The proposed legislation involves sweeping reforms. It includes a declaration of an economic and energy emergency and accompanying delegation of extraordinary powers for a year, a massive reform of the State, the deregulation of many industries, a new regime to encourage investment and changes to pensions and social security laws.

The bill also contains an annex with state-run companies which will be subject to concession or full or partial privatisation, though the list of firms has been reduced from 44 to 11 during talks. It also reintroduces income tax payments for high-earners. 

Milei, who has so far failed to get a single law passed by Congress and has said he will move forward with his plan with or without congressional support, celebrated his "economic achievements" in a radio interview on Sunday.

"Politics has been trying all along to put sticks in the wheel and, despite politics, we are succeeding and we are not going to change course," said the President.

His La Libertad Avanza party is firmly in the minority in both houses of Congress and needs the support of allies to pass legislation. The ruling party has 38 deputies out of the lower house’s 257 seats.

For its approval in general, the bill  needs at least 129 votes in favour, a number which Interior minister Guillermo Francos said was a given thanks to the support of allies., opposition lawmakers open to dialogue and provincial voting blocs.

“I estimate we’ll get between 140 and 150 for the general approval,” Francos said on Friday.

It is expected that some lawmakers may refuse to back specific sections of the bill when voting takes place article by article, just as it happened in February. The Executive Branch abruptly decided to withdraw the bill as it became clear it was losing key parts.

Ruling party lawmakers are requesting a vote this time that goes chapter by chapter, rather than article by article.

“Surely there are some topics,” Francos admitted Friday.

If the bill wins approval in the lower house, it still faces a challenging path in the upper house. The government has seven lawmakers and will need 37 sectors out of the 72-seat chamber to secure victory.

A long debate is expected in the Chamber of Deputies that will likely stretch into Tuesday.  The heads of lower house caucuses have agreed that there will be no recesses, with the session expected to last more than 30 hours. 

Some 150 speakers are expected to voice their opinions during debate.

Left-wing deputy Myriam Bregman, of Frente de Izquierda y los Trabajadores-Unidad, criticised the bill’s labour and welfare chapters as debate opened Monday, saying it “attacks living conditions” of women.

"If it is approved, nine out of ten women will not be able to retire," she claimed, warning it would lead to greater discrimination in the workplace.

Deputy Ramiro Gutiérrez (Unión por la Patria, Peronism), considered that an asset-washing investment incentive scheme represented "an invitation to all the drug cartels to come to a new tax haven."

He called on lawmakers to vote against “so that Argentina does not become a den of the mafia.”

Ruling party's deputy José Luis Espert defended the tax reform, which he defined as "the first brick in a more reasonable tax system that will allow, in time, to lower taxes to fight poverty.”

Milei’s government wants to put the bill to a vote before May 1, International Workers’ Day, when trade unions and social organisations will demonstrate against the austerity measures imposed since the change of government last December. 

Tensions are growing in Argentina amid soaring inflation, rising poverty and fierce cutbacks in public spending. 

The nation’s largest unions have also announced a national strike for May 9, in what will be the second mass walkout since Milei was inaugurated in December.

On April 23, hundreds of thousands of people marched to demonstrate against cutbacks in the funding for state universities.

Argentina is going through a tough economic crisis with consumption plummeting. The International Monetary Fund estimates the economy will contract by 2.8 percent this year. 



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