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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 15-08-2020 09:59

In the oven

What’s troubling, and could mark a complete breaking point between the ruling coalition and the opposition, is the president’s judicial reform bill.

There’s a contradiction between how President Alberto Fernández positions himself and certain key actions being taken by his government. And, as the global coronavirus pandemic slides to a second or even third matter of concern for the general population, the level of bellicosity in the public debate has risen alarmingly, like an out of control epidemiological curve of Covid-19 cases. All of this is not only troubling for the future of Argentina’s institutional sanity, it could foreshadow an apocalyptic scenario given the current level of economic deterioration, extended into the near future amid uncertainty over the current stage of the obligatory lockdown.

President Fernández paints himself as a moderate progressive politician who believes in the market and whose preferred mechanism of work is dialogue and consensus. He is also a pragmatist: his joint handling of the coronavirus pandemic, alongside Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and Province Governor Axel Kicillof, has been effective and praised by a considerable portion of the population, as the triumvirate’s powerful approval ratings prove. Alberto — and everyone for that matter — knows he owes his presidency to his vice-president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who anointed him as the leader of a pan-Peronist coalition, thus transferring her necessary but insufficient votes.

Cristina and Alberto need each other, though. Once her former Cabinet chief, President Fernández was very critical of CFK after leaving the government, to the point where he hit her where it hurts, observing that the infamous Memorandum of Understanding with Iran was potentially criminal. Alberto, the university professor, slowly found himself back in the political arena, building alliances within and across sectors with a group of Buenos Aires Peronists – he was Sergio Massa’s campaign manager in 2017 while for years he remained close to Grupo Clarín and its chief executive, Héctor Magnetto. He had been weaving a coalition together for Cristina — whose votes were needed — to beat Mauricio Macri in last year’s presidential elections when he found himself leading the ticket, a unilateral decision by Cristina. It was a stroke of genius, as the Frente de Todos coalition destroyed Macri in the PASO primaries, effectively ending the bout before it even truly started. While the Kirchnerite vote was absolutely key in the victory, it wasn’t entirely clear whether the other sectors of the Peronist alliance – mainly those grouped under Massa’s Frente Renovador and the”league” of fiscally conservative governors – would have lent their support to Fernández de Kirchner. They most probably would but that wouldn’t guarantee governability, which could be one of the reasons Cristina picked Alberto.

There appear to be little doubts as to who is in charge at this juncture. Alberto seems to be acting as the CEO while Cristina is the largest shareholder, with absolute veto power. When it comes to his working relationship with Rodríguez Larreta, for example, President Fernández has already been forced to set the dogs on the City mayor after sectors of his coalition expressed concern for his ratings in opinion polls. While the Peronist president has spoken publicly of building a “social and economic council” to guide his policy decisions, his intentions have been explicitly shut down by Cristina, who is ideologically opposed to the group of mainstream businessmen (“the G6”) and union leaders (“CGT”) Alberto was trying to build it upon. Even the sovereign debt restructuring, led by Economy Minister Martín Guzmán, which counted with nearly unanimous support throughout the political spectrum, was only approved after a private meeting between the young economist and the vice-president.

What’s troubling, and could mark a complete breaking point between the ruling coalition and the opposition, is the president’s judicial reform bill. Argentina’s Judiciary is a deeply corrupt, lethargic bureaucratic machine that hasn’t responded to the needs of Argentine society, so the need for reform is shared by most sectors. At least for the past three decades, the judicial system has been a political tool used by those in power,  which in turn makes any attempt to fix the problem suspect by those in the opposition. This much is reasonable, and an argument in favour of Alberto and his Justice Minister Marcela Losardo’s proposed plan. Whether or not it makes sense to enlarge the Supreme Court should be a technical argument between legal scholars, yet it seems clear that when Cristina’s personal attorney, Carlos Beraldi, is part of the committee that will assist the president in carrying out this reform, that the sanctity of institutions isn’t being respected. Alarm bells must ring too when Fernández de Kirchner, the acting president of the Senate, leads a public attack against appellate court judges who are overseeing cases against her. Whether justices Leopoldo Bruglia and Pablo Bertuzzi acted in good faith in the Cuadernos “notebooks of corruption” case shouldn’t be an issue defined by the Senate she currently controls, but one of the Judiciary.

It is difficult to believe Alberto Fernández when he says that he is both in charge and honest in his management of the state, with so many indications to the contrary. And these could lead to a break with the opposition, which will seek antagonise with the administration for political and electoral gain. Unfortunately, between them stands an economy in absolute freefall and a country that has been punished time and time again for its political incompetence.

In English, when someone says something is “in the oven,” it’s taken to mean the situation is “cooking,” that it’s almost done. Here, it translates to something different. It’s more like saying something is burning up entirely. 

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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