Never far from the centre of the news, Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was its sum and substance on at least two occasions in the past week – with last weekend’s totally unexpected self-demotion to the vice-presidential slot, in favour of her until recently estranged former Cabinet chief Alberto Fernández, and with last Tuesday’s courtroom appearance as a codefendant at the start of the trial for the alleged massive misallocation of public works funds in Santa Cruz province.
These two events should be viewed together – and not just because the candidacy shift is often interpreted as timed to defuse the political impact of the courtroom appearance. If that was the aim, the result might well be the exact opposite. Why? Because until last weekend the campaign focus had been the economy on both sides – the government could attribute the persistent financial crisis with its overspill into recession and inflation to market fears of Fernández de Kirchner returning to the presidency in all her populism with an inevitable default and general disconnection of Argentina from the world, while the opposition played up all the negative economic data. But now the presidential candidate of Kirchnerism is suddenly a total pragmatist using more or less the same economic vocabulary as the rest of Peronism. So where are the battle lines to be drawn in future?
Before the government could react, Alberto Fernández quickly revealed his bottom line. He said that if he reached the presidency, certain court sentences might have to be reviewed – he thus made it clear that while he was open to a whole raft of concessions on the economic front, impunity for corruption (or at least its Kirchnerite variant) is an absolute. If this is the position from which he will not be budged, this is where he should be attacked and it is a very comfortable battleground indeed for the beleaguered Mauricio Macri government. The trial starting this week is already bad enough – audit or no audit of all public works (as briefly floated by the Supreme Court last week), how can suspicions not be aroused when 46 billion pesos worth of public works is awarded to a company with a starting capital of 12,000 pesos, with all the often overpriced projects fully paid and when less than half have been completed? – but there are several more such trials to come.
Yet even here there are uncomfortable questions for the government and nor is the economy entirely displaced from the focus. These uncomfortable questions do not only concern graft scandals affecting the government – while the Macri administration has more than its fair share of conflicts of interest, nothing on as grotesque a scale as the Kirchnerite misallocations has yet emerged. Yet for vast sectors of the general public a cleaner government goes beyond the moral high ground – they want to see more concrete dividends from transparency. If the Kirchner family accountant Víctor Manzanares quantifies the money he laundered at US$10 billion, why do not such savings translate into a stronger, healthier economy, they want to know? If the essential is invisible to the eye according to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, such economic advances as sharply reduced deficits (especially dramatic in provincial finances) or a trade surplus for the eighth month running with costly fuel imports fading into the past are invisible when compared to plunging industrial output, the threat to jobs and persistent inflation.
Alberto Fernández has drawn his line, but it is a line written in sand. The bombshell of the ‘Fernández-Fernández’ ticket has triggered a flurry of speculation on all sides, including such absurdities as a vice-presidential candidacy for Buenos Aires Province Governor María Eugenia Vidal (with talk of making her the Cambiemos ruling coalition standard-bearer revived as still the country’s most popular politician). Beyond Kirchnerism, the Peronist panorama is confused between Roberto Lavagna, Sergio Massa and various others with its strongest candidate, recently re-elected Córdoba Governor Juan Schiaretti, not even in the running. Even the FernándezFernández ticket is not engraved in stone – there are those who say it comes so far ahead of the June 22 deadline for registering candidacies because it is experimental. Little point in venturing any final word for the next four weeks.
Last but not least, today is Argentina’s nationhood day, marking a rainy morning 209 years ago when the crowd insistently demanded: “The people want to know what’s going on.” After the past week’s developments, is not this cri de coeur just as valid today?