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OP-ED | 21-08-2021 09:30

A photo can be worth more than a thousand votes

The Olivos scandal does not necessarily doom the government to midterm defeat – where it is absolutely irreversible is in the destruction of presidential authority.

Those celebrated images of inappropriate birthday partying in the Olivos presidential residence at the height of last year’s quarantine might well prove to be an electoral game-changer but not in the way most people imagine. The general approach to these upcoming midterms is binary as one side winning and the other losing, expressed in its most extreme form by the reductionism of “only seven deputies between us and Venezuela” – if then-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner could not “democratise” justice in 2013 with a solid Congress majority against a fragmented opposition, what chance would she stand in today’s far more complex economic and pandemic scenario? Very few are considering the far likelier outcome of continued parliamentary gridlock and yet everything staying the same can nevertheless never be the same again as a result of that Olivos scandal.

Absurd to make any precise forecasts with election day still almost three months distant but the results are always going to fall within a parameter defined by some inflexible factors. Starting with the lower house Chamber of Deputies, most provinces have so few seats at stake that it would take two-thirds or three-quarters majorities to alter the distribution. The big exception is, of course, Buenos Aires Province (35 seats) but here both sides, strangely enough, face a raised bar. Discontent with the Frente de Todos government is rife (not least with the recent scandal) and yet even a unified opposition with a stronger focus and more constructive alternatives until now would have problems tapping it because their 2017 performance now up for renewal is such a hard act to follow – an impressive triumph reducing Fernández de Kirchner to being a minority senator in her own stronghold. Easy enough for the government to regain some ground, one might think, but the Peronist reunification winning them the 2019 general elections makes success more elusive now – the onus is thus on Frente de Todos to defend 17, not 13 seats because current Speaker Sergio Massa (the winner of four dissident seats in 2017) is now in their ranks.

As for the Senate, several seats are being renewed in major provinces with large middle classes like Córdoba, Mendoza and Santa Fe, thus making it more probable that the ruling coalition will lose rather than gain seats, ending up further adrift of the two-thirds needed for constitutional amendments while retaining an absolute majority quite comfortably. In summary, this year’s results might well be defined by those who do not vote rather than those who do (a key factor in some of the upsets across the Andes in Chile).

The Olivos scandal does not necessarily doom the government to midterm defeat – they could still pick up enough votes from recently filled pockets to maintain their position or even pick up a few seats. Where it is absolutely irreversible is in the destruction of presidential authority. President Alberto Fernández will have no choice but outreach to the opposition if he is to relaunch his government – seeking an Extended Fund Facility with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) beyond a single administration will in any case require cross-party agreement but this could extend to other areas.

Here the objection would immediately arise that Vice-President Fernández de Kirchner calling all the shots in the ruling coalition would never accept such a reversal of fortune. But this scheme would fit neatly into what she has been seeking ever since the foundation of Frente de Todos in 2019. The idea then was that Alberto Fernández and his semi-orthodox Economy Minister Martín Guzmán should do the dirty work, paving the way for more populist rule by her chosen heir (with her son Máximo and Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof the favourites for that slot). Last October the veep revamped that strategy in the form of calling for a cross-party agreement (from which she conveniently excluded herself as feeling fully represented by the president) to solve the chronic problem of the dollar – a similar notion of everybody else doing the dirty work in order to harvest the discontent – while back in March she again urged consensus across the political spectrum for the agreement to be negotiated with the IMF. In short, anybody asking Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to approve government across the Congress floor would be pushing at an open door.

Meanwhile the Olivos scandal remains a work in progress.

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