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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 05-12-2020 09:58

A growing sense of incompetence

Public perception has worsened from one where Cristina was calling the shots from the background, to one where no-one is even in control.

There’s a growing disillusionment with Alberto Fernández’s government, which is increasingly being seen as dysfunctional and inefficient. This sense of incompetence is being expressed by the opposition, but also within the ranks of the ruling Frente de Todos. It is perceived domestically and abroad, both by magazines and newspapers and foreign diplomats who fail to comprehend the incoherence of certain decisions. It is expressed in contradictory positions in both domestic and international policy. The erratic modus operandi of political decisions is even admitted publicly by President Fernández and his Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero — the individual responsible for the coordination of the Executive branch and its ministries — and justified as the consequence of a broad governing coalition with differing viewpoints. And it is exacerbated by the silence of the factotum of power behind this government, Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, whose conversations with Alberto have been reduced to a minimum (they hadn’t spoken for over a month until they shared a few minutes during the state-sponsored public funeral of Diego Maradona in the Casa Rosada) and whose presidency of the Senate has taken a proactive role in dictating and even modifying bills coming from the Executive.

While it’s clear that projecting an image of insecurity and fragility is detrimental to leading a nation — particularly in the throes of a global pandemic and economic meltdown — it is difficult to elucidate whether some of these behaviours (and their public expression) are intentional and therefore have an underlying and desired outcome.

The past several weeks have been witness to a series of disconcerting events that have exposed a simplicity of mind and incapacity to comprehend complex problems on behalf of the Fernández administration. The response seems to have generally been to blame the opposition, particularly Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, seen as the main political enemy ahead of the 2023 presidential elections.

The scenes at Maradona’s multitudinous funeral that stretched from Avenida 9 de Julio in central Buenos Aires to the Plaza de Mayo and inside the presidential palace generated the usual feeling of impotence and anger. In the midst of a pandemic, the news showed human hoards marching and chanting, sipping beer and drinks, and failing to respect the basic sanitary protocols of social distancing and mask wearing. Then, when the lines of people that stretched for several kilometres were ordered to be cut off by noon to respect the Maradona family’s wishes of taking Diego to the cemetery by 4pm, the anticipated eruption of chaos materialised. Hooligans climbing the fences of the Casa Rosada and displaying menacing flags in the internal patio, skirmishes with police both in the nation’s central plaza and near the capital’s famed Obelisk, and all of this occurring with President Fernández and his VP, Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner, inside the presidential palace and therefore at extreme risk. The response, as the violence raged, was for Interior Minister Eduardo ‘Wado’ de Pedro to blame the City Police and Rodríguez Larreta for “repression,” while Cristina bunkered down in his office at the Casa Rosada, hooligans a few metres away. The Peronists proved unable to control the streets, even if they blamed the City’s security forces.

In Congress, the Frente de Todos took Rodríguez Larreta to war over the “coparticipación” (federal revenue-sharing) of the public purse, which refers to the proportions used to distribute funds to the provinces. While the underlying issue is delicate and requires analysis, the ruling coalition quickly turned it into a class issue, noting the City of Buenos Aires was too rich and was unjustly favoured by former president Mauricio Macri. Máximo Kirchner, as head of the ruling coalition’s bloc in the Lower House, directly shot at Rodríguez Larreta in his final speech, considering him a future president and comparing him to Macri and Fernando De La Rúa. It gave the City mayor an opportunity to rally the opposition coalition, Juntos por el Cambio, to his cause, while further positioning him as the politician with the best standing in the country.

As the City mayor grew stronger in the opinion polls, Fernández de Kirchner delivered another blow to the president’s credibility by forcing a change to the provisional formula with which retirees and pensioners calculate their payments. In conflict with the Executive’s bill that had been presented a week before — which includes Economy Minister Martín Guzmán’s belt-tightening seduction plan talked through with the International Monetary Fund — the Senate announced it would modify the project in a way that increases spending. As that was unfolding, President Fernández’s private conversation with United States president-elect Joe Biden — initially seen as a show of political support for the nation — was wasted as Foreign Minister Felipe Solá claims in an interview that Argentina was asking for the removal of the US representative at the IMF, Mark Rosen. The whole incident is laughable – Solá hadn’t even been present for the video call, having “mistakenly” been sent to the presidential residence in Olivos rather than the Casa Rosada. Solá’s “made up” version of events nevertheless ruffled Rosen’s feathers, forcing Guzmán and Argentina’s representative at the Fund, Sergio Chodos, to offer explanations and apologies in Washington and Buenos Aires. Once again, the Foreign Ministry is at odds with other members of the governing coalition, as occurred with the Venezuela issue previously. It all leaves the government looking rather amateurish. Even with Donald Trump out of office, Rosen will be the US director at the IMF for several months into the Biden presidency, just as Guzmán is looking to negotiate a new plan that includes an extended grace period for Argentina from its largest creditor. It’s not a good moment to anger him.

There are several other examples of what appears to be a lack of internal coordination within the government, but there also exists an incapacity to generate the levels of trust needed to begin to build positive expectations. British economic magazine The Economist ran a piece this week calling Alberto “weak” and without a plan, while mainstream media outlets have continued to build on the image of the a powerless and even incompetent president. The public perception has worsened from one where Cristina was calling the shots from the background, to one where no-one is in control. The breakdown of the “pandemic triumvirate” – Fernández, Rodríguez Larreta and Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof – marked the beginning of a steady decline in the president's image in opinion polls, mirrored by the mayor’s rise. It is also an imaginary line marking the moment in which politics, rather than underlying problems, seem to have become the motivating factor behind most policy decisions.

It is a dangerous moment for the government to play political games, if that is indeed what it’s doing. The pandemic appears to be easing in Argentina but it is long from gone, and the economy is a shambles. The only source of financing at present is money printing and inflation threatens to soar above 50 percent again next year. President Fernández needs to regain his momentum and lead the nation through one of its darkest hours with the full support of most of his coalition and the centrists in the opposition, or we will once again become the rock of Sisyphus.

 

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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