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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 13-10-2023 11:27

Airing the dirty laundry of Argentina’s political caste

As we get closer to the general election there could be a few more surprises of the smear campaign machine, so hold onto your hats.

Well into the final stretch of the electoral campaign in Argentina, dirty laundry is being aired and it’s not a pretty sight. Fortunately for all presidential candidates the smear campaigns are being unleashed against every major political space almost simultaneously. 

Whether the synchronisation is casual or causal is up to the reader’s imagination. Sergio Massa and Axel Kicillof, running for president and re-election as the governor of the Buenos Aires Province respectively, have the most to worry. Not only are they coming under the heaviest fire, given the weight of the accusations against people associated to them, but they are both in tight races: one for a spot in the presidential run-off supposedly against Javier Milei, and the other with his lead under attack in the “mother of all battles” that is the nation’s most-populous electoral battleground. The ultra-libertarian isn’t safe either though, with close associates from high levels of his La Libertad Avanza coalition accused of corruption, yet for some reason it doesn’t seem to affect his voting intention in the polls. We’ve seen this before this campaign. Patricia Bullrich and Juntos por el Cambio are also under pressure, but the alleged audio that has been leaked is more damaging on a personal level for potential economy minister Carlos Melconian than anything else. As we get closer to the general election there could be a few more surprises of the smear campaign machine, so hold onto your hats.

When it comes to the modus operandi of smear campaigns in Argentina, there are several signs that things have been planned in advance. It is difficult, many times impossible, to figure out exactly who is behind these kinds of attacks, and generally there’s the belief that the intelligence agencies – either organically, inorganically or via former agents – are involved. As time and technology progresses, it’s absolutely possible that individuals and even private-sector elements, both domestic and international, could be playing their part.

All of this appears evident in the case of Martín Insaurralde, the Conurbano strongman whose meteoric rise made him seem like the smartest man in the room. Able to gain the trust of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, he had managed to be seen as a sort of “independent” Peronist who could articulate deals between the so-called “barons” of the Buenos Aires Province and La Cámpora, Máximo Kirchner’s political youth organisation with territorial interests in the region. And with the vice-president, who is looking to the region to build a sort of fortress from which to resist politically in the face of what appears to be a sure defeat of her political space in the upcoming elections. Insaurralde’s fate was decided by model Sofia Clerici and her posts on social media platform Instagram, in which she revealed they had spent time in the beautiful town of Marbella off Spain’s Gold Coast and aboard a luxury yacht where they enjoyed a ravishing time sipping champagne, eating lobster and apparently ravishing each other. Why was Insaurralde so naïve? Not only did he allow Clerici to take pictures that would clearly incriminate him, but he also knew that she had in the past played part of a smear campaign against former Buenos Aires Province governor and failed presidential candidate Daniel Scioli. Maybe he’s a fool, but the real answer probably has something to do with impunity and the expectation that he was untouchable.

Supposedly he was, according to Perfil’s Ramón Indart, who explained in a recent column that Insaurralde was one of the major players in Unión por la Patria’s campaign collection efforts in Buenos Aires Province, where he is also the nexus with the powerful gaming industry. His downfall, together with La Nación journalist Carlos Pagni’s revelation that his divorce settlement with model Jesica Cirio was worth an alleged US$20 million, was clearly orchestrated. By whom? And for what reason? Someone clearly knows, just ask Clerici why she decided to post those stories on her Instagram a few weeks after their “secret” trip.

The Insaurralde scandal pornographically reveals the wealth generation capacities of the political class, particularly in Buenos Aires Province. It is similar to the Julio ‘Chocolate’ Rigau case, where a third- or fourth-line political operative was found withdrawing funds from multiple accounts belonging to employees of the provincial legislature. It's part of a well-known and oft-documented method to raise “political funds” that appears to be employed by all parts of the political spectrum. Was the shroud of impunity lifted, allowing Chocolate’s tasks to be exposed? And what impact will it have on Kicillof’s campaign? What about Massa’s?

Interestingly, while the Peronists are scrambling to deal with the crisis — which gets bigger by the day — in the frontrunner’s camp they are easily handling some pretty graphic cases of apparent corruption. In what is clearly an intelligence operation against La Libertad Avanza, and which according to journalist Hugo Alconada Mon was attempted against several other political spaces in recent weeks or months, video footage of close advisors to Milei show how they explicitly ask for undeclared funds for the campaign, promising favours in return. In the eye of the storm are Lilia Lemoine, Milei’s stylist and a candidate for the lower house Chamber of Deputies, and Mariano Gerván, a close advisor to Carlos Kikuchi, one of Milei’s top strategists. Both of them were filmed having private meetings where the dirty deed was meant to occur, even though the act never fully materialised. The videos are filmed without their knowledge and the voice of the interviewer is edited so that it is unrecognisable. One speaks in English (Lemoine), the other in Spanish (Gerván). The operation, described in detail by Alconada Mon, was international and suggests some higher-level planning and execution. While both of Milei’s operatives deny the accusations against them, there doesn’t really seem to be an impact in his voting intention, as seen during the previous corruption scandal where some of the same actors were found to be selling spots on the candidate lists, which had almost no effect on his electoral performance. Apparently some potential voters are more scared by the aggressive run on the peso, which was partially fawned by Milei, than his coalition’s supposedly corrupt tactics.

Along similar lines, Bullrich’s campaign was hit with some heavy artillery with the leak of a series of private phone calls by her star economist, Melconian. Despite being discredited by Bullrich as the work of artificial intelligence, people with knowledge of the matter confirm the veracity of the calls. They are from a few years back, when Melconian was in charge of Banco Nación during the Mauricio Macri administration, and reveal mainly personal matters that make him look bad, particularly if he effectively employed women because of their looks. There are hints of low-level government appointments being made at his behest, which could be seen as undue influence, and what appears to be the orientation of internal processes to the benefit of certain parties. In this case, it appears his phones were tapped in the context of a judicial investigation where these conversations should have been destroyed, but instead were given or sold to interested parties in exchange for something. It’s not uncommon for judges to accept using an unrelated case to tap phones at the behest of the intelligence agencies, as in the infamous “Operación Puf.” Once again, the question to ask is whether this will have an impact on the campaign? It feels unlikely, even if it reduces the public stature of Melconian.

Fortunately or unfortunately, these smear campaigns are part of the game. On the one hand, revealing corruption and getting the judiciary to actually investigate the political class is always important, even if it’s in the context of a political smear campaign. Yet, that timing, days from a transcendental presidential election, is troubling in that these leaks, generally of dubious origins, have the potential to turn an election, effectively having an impact on the democratic process.

Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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