At the time this column was being written, to meet the newspaper’s deadline, president-elect Alberto Fernández, at the helm of a Peronist coalition, was poised to name his entire Cabinet and outgoing President Mauricio Macri was scheduled to deliver a national broadcast speech summing up his four years in office.
Macri, the leader of the centre-right Cambiemos coalition, has also called a farewell rally in Plaza de Mayo for this afternoon and there’s also anticipation about an interview to be released tomorrow night. The outgoing president is not going out quietly. His campaigners continue to spin webs designed to ensure the outgoing president’s political survival, in spite of the 48-40 percent first-round electoral defeat he suffered on October 27.
The transition has been relatively smooth, but it is also a time to come to terms with the outcome, especially given that former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is back in the picture. It was she who, out of nowhere, anointed her former Cabinet chief and positioned herself as his running-mate earlier this year. Fernández de Kirchner is now the vice-president-elect, even after being vilified by much of the press for four years. The notion that she will be back in power next week is still sinking in for many of her detractors.
Fernández de Kirchner faces numerous corruption allegations and made a court appearance on Monday to voice her defence in one of those cases. The ferocity of that defence in front of the judges irked critics. It was a display of power by a political survivor. In court, the former president implied that the judges should investigate the Cabinet chiefs in charge of executing the budgets now under suspicion. And guess who was a Kirchnerite Cabinet chief between 2003 and 2008? Alberto Fernández, that’s who.
The president-elect called CFK’s court appearance a “formidable defence.” Alberto himself was busy on Twitter arguing with a top investigative journalist now investigating possible connections between his associates and Kirchnerite construction moguls being probed for graft.
The critics, by voicing their complaints so early against the new government, risk overkill. Arguably Alberto Fernández’s honeymoon will be short. But this early searing criticism is like filing for divorce before getting married.
Macri avoided political humiliation by garnering over 10 million votes on October 27. But he leaves behind a rocketing inflation rate, rising poverty and unemployment. The most spectacular aspect of his defeat, which is not talked about much, is that he concludes his mandate with strict foreign currency controls. Macri did away with the Kirchnerite controls overnight upon taking office in 2015. But now the incoming administration has the advantage of blaming the draconian regulations on the PRO leader, who had considered himself a champion of neoliberal policies for most of his adult life and leaves office banning purchases any higher than US$200 a month. You can almost hear Ayn Rand turning over in her grave.
Yet listen to Macri’s supporters for a minute: he is the first non-Peronist president to serve out a constitutional four-year mandate in nearly a century and navigated his mandate without a majority in Congress. He claims he had no choice but to make the people swallow unpopular policies – like huge utility rate hikes – to lay the foundations for future economic growth. The president has claimed this suffices to claim the title of the undisputed leader of the opposition. Macri, however, faces a huge challenge because the title rarely means anything here when a new president takes office. The real political dispute will only unfold closer to the presidential elections scheduled for 2023. No clear leader of the opposition is likely to emerge before that time.
Alberto Fernández meanwhile has said that there is an orchestrated campaign in the press to smash the united Peronist front that won the election. The Peronists have a gruesome history of internal infighting and backstabbing but the president-elect said nonetheless that his standing unity with Fernández de Kirchner and with the new Lower House Speaker Sergio Massa will not be destroyed.
Massa, who has his electoral base in northern Greater Buenos Aires, is a Peronist who turned on Fernández de Kirchner in 2013. He was third in the presidential elections won by Macri in 2015. Yet Massa has since mended fences with the Kirchnerite wing. On Wednesday he was formally nominated as speaker by lawmaker Máximo Kirchner, the former president’s son who is now the leader of the Peronist caucus. The fate of the new Peronist coalition hinges on how Alberto Fernández, CFK and Massa interact.
There was a moment of interaction between Alberto Fernández and Massa which was especially significant. The presidentelect said on Tuesday Massa had a bright political future ahead of him. The 47-year-old Massa is the “best prepared” of his generation to be president, Alberto Fernández said. The biggest political challenge for the president-elect is to juggle a complex Peronist coalition. The praise for Massa, after reportedly refusing to name one of his allies as security minister amid Kirchnerite complaints, is part of that juggling act.
How Massa and Máximo Kirchner get on in the lower house Chamber of Deputies is also crucial for the new government. The session there this week was charged with symbolism: Massa, on taking the speaker’s chair, showered praise on his predecessor: Emilio Monzó, a former centre-right Peronist operative when he was drafted by Macri in 2015 to preside over the Lower House. Yet almost immediately Monzó was at odds with Macri’s inner circle that recommended against cutting deals to bring more old-school Peronists into the centre-right coalition.
When addressing the Lower House on Wednesday, Massa vowed to emulate Monzó in preaching “dialogue” between rival parliamentary forces. Macri’s coalition had initially claimed that it would be the first minority in the Lower House with 119 lawmakers out of 257. But already it has suffered the defection of three, much to the outrage of the outgoing president, who said they had “betrayed” his confidence. The Peronist front is now close to controlling the Lower House. The latest count in the Senate, which will be headed by Fernández de Kirchner, shows the Peronist caucus with a mighty majority of 42 seats out of 72.
This Peronist dominance, however, could fall apart if things
go wrong (as it did during the stand-off with the farmers in
2008). But right here and now, the shift in the electoral landscape is indeed dramatic – even when the outgoing president
and part of his electoral base is behaving like it isn’t happening.