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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 18-07-2020 08:37

Coalitions under stress

Political rivals are accusing each other of being “haters” – but of course, one person's hater is another person's hero. The pressure, however, is not just external.

There's nothing political about the coronavirus. A total of 4,250 new cases and 82 deaths from the disease were reported on Wednesday night – another new high. The virus hits, but it’s not the one making the political questions. It is then up to the nation's politicians to call the shots on how to fight it. That's where the politics begins. Suddenly Argentina, which has been quarantined with different levels of severity since March 20, is registering a concerning number of cases a day. Officials must now take a closer look at the growing daily number of cases and the availability of beds of intensive care units. 

At the time of writing, President Alberto Fernández, Argentina’s centre-left Peronist leader, was poised to relax the strict lockdown in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area (Buenos Aires City plus Greater Buenos Aires), which is set to expire on Friday. The whole point of the quarantine is to flatten the curve, but right now that's not what is happening in the metropolitan area. Nevertheless, it looks like things will open up, even if just a little.

The bipartisan civility of those in charge is holding up – for now. Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, a leader of the opposition centre-right coalition, met with Buenos Aires Province’s Kirchnerite Governor Axel Kicillof on Monday to agree a plan to loosen restrictions, which will kick in next week. The two leaders, the first from the opposition centre-right coalition and the latter a key member of the ruling Frente de Todos grouping, have tussled, but they have so far avoided an all-out confrontation during the crisis. The growing number of cases will test that – going back to phase three would mean allowing runners out to exercise, granting children more time outdoors, not only on weekends, and the opening of non-essential neighbourhood shops. In truth, the routine has now turned into a technicality because there is no way of imposing the lockdown by force on those who don't like it. What is not a technicality though is the growing number of cases -- like it or not.

Those who don't like the lockdown staged loud protests on Independence Day (July 9), with scenes that included hundreds of protesters waving flags in downtown Buenos Aires City. Some irate protestors tried to mob a van from the pro-government news channel C5N while shouting abuse and threw punches at a reporter. One car even carried a sign saying that politicians and trade union leaders should be shot. Another protest is scheduled for August 17, a national holiday. 

The rallies are endorsed by some leaders of the centre-right coalition Juntos por el Cambio, which includes the centre-right PRO party of former president Mauricio Macri, the Coalición Cívica and the Unión Cívica Radical. Tensions are rising: Rodríguez Larreta and other coalition leaders condemned the violence against the C5N news team. It is now a recurring story: the notion that there's a moderate wing in the opposition coalition (especially leaders in office like the City mayor) who don't back Macri's confrontational style that feeds on the polarisation that has dominated national politics since the rise of Kirchnerismo in 2003.

Macri had mostly kept mum since losing the presidential elections to Fernández late last year, but he is out and about and talking again. He made a fast trip to neighbouring Paraguay to meet with conservative political allies. The former president is implying in not-so subtle terms that the Peronist administration is using the pandemic as an excuse to curtail civil liberties and enhance state control, basing its policies on “fear.”

The protests have highlighted opposition to the president's recent move to nationalise the debt-saddled soy crusher Vicentin, which is based in Santa Fe Province. The uproar over Vicentin has apparently rattled Fernández. The president, in one of the many interviews he regularly grants, told a radio station that decreeing the takeover and talks about a nationalisation bill to Congress had been a “mistake” and that he had expected public opinion would “celebrate" the decision to rescue an ailing company. Fernández said he had not pushed forward with the nationalisation to avoid the confrontation degenerating into something akin to a football derby rivalry. Yet he left the door open to further developments, declaring that so far nobody had come up with a better option than placing Vicentin under state control (even when that could involve a new plan tabled by the Peronist governor of Santa Fe Province).

Fernández made a name for himself as a moderate backroom Peronist party operative, working as Cabinet chief for the more confrontational and outspoken late president Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007). Now, as a leader in office, he is suddenly exploring his moderate vein once again. On July 9 he delivered his Independence Day speech surrounded by prominent business leaders who have often locked horns with past Kirchnerite administrations. Also in attendance was the head of the Sociedad Rural Argentina (SRA), a conservative lobby that represents Argentina’s big ranchers and spearheaded the stand-off in 2008 against soy export duty hikes. The speech, in which Fernández vowed to put an end to “serial haters” (an apparent reference to the opposition hawks), came on the heels of a more private meeting between the president and business leaders also attended by Lower House Speaker Sergio Massa and Máximo Kirchner (head of the ruling coalition caucus in the Lower House and son of Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner).

The president, Massa and Máximo then held a remote meeting with centre-right coalition lawmakers in another nod towards moderation. Fernández made a point of telling the opposition leaders that he had been hurt by a recent Juntos por el Cambio statement that sought to imply that there were political motives behind the recent killing of Fabián Gutiérrez, a former private secretary to Fernández de Kirchner when she was president and a witness in a corruption case against her. The Coalición Cívica, headed by former lawmaker Elisa Carrió, refused to join the remote talks with the president and his parliamentary team in another sign that the opposition coalition is not fully united. She has expressed her full support for Macri yet has only voiced thinly-veiled criticism for Rodríguez Larreta’s approach. At least two centre-right mayors from Greater Buenos Aires met with the president and refused to endorse the statement that said the former private secretary's gory murder in the Kirchners’ home province in Patagonia carried serious institutional implications and should be investigated by a federal court in Buenos Aires. The president's use of the term “haters” on Independence Day, an apparent reference to the confrontational wing of the opposition coalition, ruffled feathers. Now political rivals are accusing each other of being the “haters” in the game. But of course, one person's hater is another person's hero.

Macri’s coalition must also hope to control the damage from a court investigation into allegations that during his presidency, individuals at the AFI federal intelligence agency spied on politicians, journalists and trade union leaders (including Fernández de Kirchner when she was in opposition). Macri's former AFI chiefs, Gustavo Arribas and Silvia Majdalani, have appeared in court. They denied the allegations, yet remain under investigation. 

They’re not the only ones with problems. The ruling coalition is also under stress over the president's moderate gestures. Hebe de Bonafini, the outspoken leader of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo human rights organisation, sent Fernández a letter complaining about his meeting with business leaders. Bonafini, no stranger to controversy, is a fringe member of the ruling coalition, but she is still a powerful symbol of the struggle against the last military dictatorship. Fernández wrote back saying that he appreciated the comments, but that his obligation was to be “the president of all Argentines.” 

Enter Cristina: a retweet from Fernández de Kirchner of an article in a pro-government newspaper saying that there was no point in trying to convince Argentina's conservative top business leaders that they should back the government's economic policies for “national development” triggered speculation that the vice-president did not appreciate the move to reach out to those lobbies. Prominent ministers and Kirchnerite groups loyal to the former president closed ranks to quash speculation of a major rift. The president's moderation comes after a meeting with former caretaker leader Eduardo Duahlde, once a kingmaker in the Peronist party who was appointed head of state by Congress after the 2001 economic meltdown. Duhalde tapped Fernández de Kirchner as presidential candidate in 2003 in the middle of a severe political crisis that was forcing him out. Once in office, she turned on him and defeated him, electorally, in Buenos Aires Province, co-opting his powerful political machine in the process.

Other internal controversies inside Frente de Todos, a complex Peronist front that includes backers and former foes, involved Venezuela and a statement by Argentine diplomats at the United Nations expressing concern about the human rights situation there. Fernández scrambled on Wednesday to stress, speaking with a pro-government journalist on a radio show, that the statement on Venezuela was routine and not a new stance. Argentina had not changed its position on Bolivarian Venezuela and opposes foreign intervention potentially backed by the United States, he said. The spat comes at a time the Fernández administration was quietly trying to reach out via diplomatic channels to the United States behind the scenes, in the middle of its debt negotiations with bondholders. 

Coalitions in Argentina have a history of shifting rapidly. Politicians of all hues have qualms in changing sides overnight (the examples are so many, from the president down, that there's no point in singling out specifics), but the process often happens. The challenge for both the ruling and opposition coalitions remains preventing formal splinters before the 2021 midterms.

Martín Gambarotta

Martín Gambarotta

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