Margarita Stolbizer is at a crossroads once again. The long-serving lawmaker has seen her multiple attempts to construct a centre-left alliance in Argentina fail to come to fruition and she has been witnessing diminishing returns from voters in recent years.
An outspoken critic of both the Kirchnerite governments (2003-2015), for widespread corruption, and the Mauricio Macri administration for what she perceives as anti-egalitarian policies, the veteran politician faces this electoral year ahead with another challenge a head of her: breaking through the evident polarisation that divides Argentina.
The head of the small GEN (Generación para un Encuentro Nacional) party, which is mostly active in Buenos Aires province, the trained lawyer and former presidential candidate receives the Times at her office in the Buenos Aires City district of Balvanera.
As the presidential campaign gets underway, which parties or leaders will you try to bring together, in order to form an alliance?
We’re still in a very premature stage — except maybe for the government, who appears to have everything pretty much decided.
As for the opposition, I believe a candidacy of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner would alter the scenario completely. There’s one election with Cristina [running for president] and another without her. Nothing is clear at this point, so it’s difficult for us to resolve, as early as January, our policy of alliances or an electoral front.
We do know that our goal is to strengthen a political sector that belongs neither to the Cambiemos administration nor to the ‘Cristinista’ opposition.
We need to fight polarisation. Polarisation is good business for those who express it but bad business for Argentina.
Because we have come from two elections [the 2015 presidential elections and the 2017 midterms] where people ended up deciding their vote in opposition to someone, in order to prevent that person from winning, instead of voting in favour of a candidate who expresses their ideas.
We’re trying to build a social democratic alternative, a centre-left coalition, [a space] that is now vacant.
One of your natural allies is Socialist leader Miguel Lifschitz, the governor of Santa Fe province, who earlier this month met with former economy minister Roberto Lavagna. How likely is it that you will team up with them for the elections?
Our agreement with Lifschitz and the Socialist Party goes way back. In fact in 2011 the Socialists chose Hermes Binner as their presidential candidate and in that election I ran for governor of Buenos Aires province. We repeated the deal in 2015 and in all probability we will be joining GEN with the Socialists once again.
We think of our network of alliances as rings or concentric circles. The first is our own party, which we’ll try to strengthen before anything else. The second are progressive sectors. And the third will depend on how [Peronist leader Sergio] Massa defines his own opposition to the government.
In this second “ring” we find leaders such as [former ambassador to the United States] Martín Lousteau and lawmaker Ricardo Alfonsín. But they don’t seem to like the idea of breaking away from the government.
We like both of them and we’d be delighted to team up with them. But I don’t think they have distanced themselves from the government — quite the opposite in fact. They want us to take part in a primary inside Cambiemos. And we’re clearly not doing that.
What happens with Massa and [PJ lawmaker] Felipe Solá? You signed alliances with them in the past.
They are two completely different cases. Felipe Solá has joined an anti-Macri front, and I won’t take part in an anti-Macri front, the same way that back then I didn’t join an anti-Cristina front.
You consider Solá to be too close to Kirchnerism...
Yes, I see him as part of an anti-Macri alliance also comprised by [former social development minister of Buenos Aires province] Daniel Arroyo, [senator Fernando “Pino”] Solanas… I don’t do politics by mere opposition. You may say I run poorly, but at least I have a clear conscience that I’m expressing positive ideas.
What about Massa?
I will team up with him as long as he maintains his idea of building a broad coalition that is not necessarily a Peronist primary. If he runs in a PJ [Justicialist Party, Peronist] primary, I’ll have no business there. But if he builds a broad coalition of parties based on proposals we’re willing to talk. I have a very good relationship with him.
Who has to take the first step in this? Because usually in Argentina the candidate who is doing best at the polls is the one who thinks he can attract all other contenders to take part in their electoral front.
I beg to differ. I’m the president of a political party, GEN, with a nationwide presence, which never loses its identity as a party. When elections come, we discuss with what leaders we can sign a political agreement with, based on proposals. We don’t build coalitions of convenience.
We really want to be able to carry out our ideas with people who are willing to do so. And we don’t try that by looking at the polls.
Tell me two or three strong campaign issues for 2019, ones that sets you aside from most parties.
This country’s biggest issue is inequality, and it must be addressed from an economic perspective that is nowhere to be seen today. When you take a look at those who ruled the country for 12 years and those who are ruling it now... well, it’s clear that no-one has come up with a solution yet.
Macri took office by questioning the country he “inherited” from Kirchnerism: trade deficit, inflation, low institutionalism. But today, three years later, we’re even worse than when he reached the Casa Rosada. Economists who said we needed to grow before we can discuss the redistribution of resources have failed.
We believe it’s the other way round: that going for a fairer distribution will help the economy grow. We first need to address the problems affecting those most in need, the middle classes, supporting the small- and medium-sized businesses [PyMES]. But there are others distinctive campaign issues in our party.
A tax reform that distributes the burden, an environmental agenda, an agenda on gender.
Mauricio Macri begins this year with a poor economy and by reading the newspapers you can see there is a clear attempt to divert public opinion toward other issues, such as security. What is your opinion of Security Minister Patricia Bullrich and the government’s security policies?
The government is trying to discuss this issue in election mode. I think it’s terrible.
Last year, the Justice Ministry held a number of meetings with high-level technical and academic experts to discuss a new regime of juvenile criminal responsibility. By the end of the discussions, all these qualified people reached the conclusion that lowering the age of criminal responsibility should not be promoted [as an issue], and the issue was dropped. Now the government is picking up the issue in an electoral year and months after the rise of [Brazilian president] Jair Bolsonaro.
First you hear Patricia Bullrich encouraging citizens to arm themselves, the next thing you hear about is a man who fired “by accident” and killed two others, a guy who riddled another guy with bullets, the man who killed his ex-wife… Every day we see lots of crimes which are being committed as a result to access to firearms and the government is encouraging this.
And I’m not talking from an ideological point of view: in fact, I’m trying to prove how ineffective these measures are, because crime has not gone down.
We need to address security from a comprehensive perspective, with the idea that results will not be seen overnight.
One of Bullrich’s hobby horses is the government’s “war on drugs.” What do you make of it?
I’ve been saying for ages that we need to move forward with the decriminalisation of drugs, because there’s a Supreme Court ruling that says the State cannot limit the individual rights of consumers. That doesn’t mean the government should not try more effective measures against drug-traffickers.
Instead of using 90 percent of the budget on the “war on drugs” the government should use 50 percent to fight drug-trafficking and the other 50 percent on the prevention of addiction. In Argentina there are no effective measures being taken against the criminal economy: we still allow money to flow into tax havens, and drugtraffickers use that in order to keep their businesses running.
This week, your ally Lifschitz said in an interview that Bullrich was doing “a good job” and that she has “results to show.”
That’s an answer from a governor who works alongside the minister and recognises her efforts. My differences with the government’s security policies are very clear, and Bullrich represents the so-called “punitive demagogy” with an electoral touch that I find very dangerous.
What’s your assessment of the government of María Eugenia Vidal in Buenos Aires province?
I think the province is being badly run. Investment in infrastructure is bad, the healthcare system is bad, education problems are as serious as ever and the province faces very high drop-out rates. I see no improvements over the last three years.
But I must say: Vidal is making an effort, she hasn’t lost her ability to talk to opposition leaders.
When Vidal won the elections in 2015, you were optimistic — in fact, you both held a meeting and shared a photo-op. But in the last months your relationship cooled down. Why?
I don’t know [if the relationship cooled down]. When she won the election, she came to my house for a visit, it was a very valuable gesture. Then she came back for a second time, and not long ago I paid her a visit but we didn’t have our picture taken. Maybe that’s the difference.
But I always held a respectful dialogue with her. We’re not friends, but I respect the fact that she has the ability to listen to other political leaders.
Were you ever offered a post in the Buenos Aires provincial government?
No. My relationship with her is the same one that she has with Massa. She talks to Massa all the time.
Besides these talks, were there any attempts to build any type of political alliance between you and Vidal, at the provincial level?
Some things are normal when discussing the budget. But once again, it is the same kind of dialogue she has with Massa and his lawmakers.
In 2015 you were part of a non-Kirchnerite front that was relegated to fifth place, and in 2017 you took part in a non-Macri front with worse results...
In both elections we saw our support diluted, it’s true.
Is there any place for a progressive centre-left alternative in Argentina?
Not only there’s place, there’s also a need. Argentines cannot be the hostages of polarisation. It seems as it today the only possible thing in Argentine politics is either the government or Kirchnerism.
The thing is, we need to make this a visible issue.