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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 13-03-2021 08:09

Justice for Al(-berto)

It's clear words no longer suffice and that Kirchnerites want to see results on the judicial front.

Like marriage, trying to make a coalition work is hard. Argentina’s ruling centre-left Peronist Frente de Todos coalition is no different. 

Alberto Fernández often seems to surf a wave of internal turmoil. He was tapped for president by his current Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the leader of the powerful Kirchnerite wing of the coalition which has its bastion in Buenos Aires province. Fernández de Kirchner, a two-term former president, is facing a number of corruption allegations in court. The vice-president claims she’s the victim of a right-wing conspiracy with many judges in league with supporters of former neoconservative president Mauricio Macri. The pressure is on because businessman Lázaro Báez, a man with close ties to the Kirchner administrations, has been sentenced to 12 years in prison for money laundering. Báez amassed a fortune bagging massive public works contracts in Santa Cruz, the Patagonian province that’s home to the Kirchner family. Now investigators could probe deeper the connection between Báez and Fernádez de Kirchner.

Allegations of a conspiracy against populist leaders is a regional thing. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil's former leftist president, has been released from jail after a ruling said that he was incorrectly tried in a wrong jurisdiction. The jailing cleared the road for the virulent rightwinger Jair Bolsonaro to win the presidency in Brazil. Lula’s release is a geopolitical signal. The regional landscape could be shifting.

The Kirchnerite camp is dissatisfied with the performance of the judicial branch in Argentina, including the five-member Supreme Court. CFK is being framed like Lula, they argue. What say the president? Fernández delivered his State of the Nation speech to Congress on March 1 and blasted the court system, leaving no-one in any doubt. The president called for Congress to assemble a bicameral commission to monitor the performance of the judicial branch. But almost immediately Justice Minister Marcela Losardo, a seasoned attorney who has for years been a member of the president's inner circle, downplayed the significance of the commission saying that it would not have the power to punish and fire judges and prosecutors. The latest news? Losardo, after days of rumours, has resigned.

The president confirmed the resignation during an interview with a cable television news channel, saying that his long time legal associate Losardo was “overwhelmed” and exhausted. Losardo's mission was possibly nudging the judicial branch, where she has many contacts, into understanding that change was required. But the patience of the Kirchnerite branch has clearly run out. The new justice minister had not been officially named at press time for this column. The ultimate question is whether the president was posturing and dragging his feet on the judicial front while Fernández de Kirchner is facing corruption allegations in court which she claims have been fabricated like Lula’s. The president blasted the judicial branch in Congress but the corruption cases against Fernández de Kirchner have not gone away. Alberto insisted during the interview that what the opposition press wants to see is a full-blown dispute between him and Fernández de Kirchner. They will not get their way, he said. But it's clear words no longer suffice and that Kirchnerites want to see results on the judicial front.

The unity of the ruling coalition is being tested by this. Fernández is an experienced Peronist party operative and ultimately it's not entirely impossible that he was simply posturing and bluffing when he unleashed his attacks against the judicial branch in Congress. The president sounded angry in Congress, but then Losardo, his lieutenant, downplayed the threats. Was forcing Losardo out the Kirchnerite way of calling the president's bluff? The minister’s resignation has prompted a barrage of commentary about other officials that could be shown the door. Is CFK promoting a sweeping Cabinet reshuffle in slow motion?

The housing minister and the health minister (both loyal to the president) have already lost their jobs recently. Questions are now been asked about the future of Economy Minister Martín Guzmán, the US-trained economist who successfully rescheduled US$65 billion worth of foreign debt. Guzmán is now in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to clinch an agreement for the US$44 billion the lender injected into Argentina during Macri's presidency (2015-2019). The Peronist administration claims the IMF was bullied into lending an unprecedented sum to Macri for political reasons by then-US President Donald Trump. Also at issue for Guzmán are private utility rates, frozen during the pandemic.

The president told Congress (with Fernández de Kirchner sitting next to him) that utility rates will not suffer significant increases this election year. But while Fernández rhetorically declared that low-income households would be spared from any hikes, he did leave the door open for increases to compensate for inflation. The problem for the president is that the Kirchnerite camp, marshalled by Fernández de Kirchner, is not easily fooled by waffle. Is the president trying to appease CFK with words?

Tariffs were practically frozen during the Kirchnerite era (2003-2015). Ask Fernández de Kirchner and she will tell you that her camp's electoral success is largely due to its policy of drastically limiting private utility rate increases. Rates were massively increased by Macri and he lost his re-election bid after all. Fernández de Kirchner gives a lot of credit to Buenos Aires province Governor Axel Kicillof, who served as CFK's last economy minister until she left office in 2015. He was elected governor of Buenos Aires Province in 2019 defeating the pro-Macri incumbent, María Eugenia Vidal, by a landslide. There is rife speculation that Kicillof (an economist trained at the University of Buenos Aires, not in the United States) is questioning Guzmán’s zest to hammer out a deal with the IMF and jack up tariffs in a bid to meet fiscal deficit targets. Guzmán has tried to stand his ground, declaring in public this week that fiscal discipline is not “right wing.” The minister still has Fernández's backing – but then again, so did Losardo.

There could be a lull in the reported conflict because Kicillof has suddenly other issues to worry about. The governor is caught in the middle of a Covid vaccine scandal after Beatriz Sarlo, the renowned literary critic and intellectual, testified in court that she was wooed by the governor's wife Soledad Quereilhac, also a literary academic, to take part in a campaign to promote vaccination. Sarlo was contacted earlier this year by her publisher who offered her to join the campaign at the behest of the province’s first lady in exchange for a Covid jab and took this as an unethical offer made “under the counter.” The Kicillofs said there was nothing fishy about the straightforward offer, made at a time when there was public concern about the effects of the Russian-made Sputnik vaccine. The uproar could, in the end, go down as nothing more than a misunderstanding between academic heavyweights with a prestigious publisher caught in the crossfire, but Kicillof is being forced to take awkward questions when the vaccination drive was gathering steam in Buenos Aires Province. Gines González García quit as health minister recently after the veteran leftist journalist Horacio Verbitsky admitted that he was vaccinated at the Health Ministry thanks to his contacts there. Verbitsky, who is 80, has apologised. 

The management of the vaccinations, which is still nascent with some four million vaccines in the country todate, was always going to be a crucial issue in an election year. Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, a potential opposition centre-right presidential candidate, came under pressure when hundreds of senior citizens over the age of 80 this week were forced to wait in long lines under the sun for a Covid jab in three premises conditioned by the municipal government. City Hall was forced to apologise profusely, improve the organisation and increase the number of premises after the shambles. National social security agencies criticised Rodríguez Larreta and accused him of deliberately leaving them out of the vaccination drive in Buenos Aires City.

The other key campaign issue, of course, is the economy. Food inflation is rampant. The good economic news is the significant income tax breaks announced by Lower House Speaker Sergio Massa. In what could be the product of a deal within the coalition, Massa is taking credit for the juicy tax breaks for employees. The Frente Renovador leader, who portrays himself as a centrist Peronist, joined the coalition at the last minute ahead of the 2019 elections after years of battling against Fernández de Kirchner electorally in Buenos Aires Province. He has publicly opposed pressure to grant presidential pardons for jailed Kirchnerite officials and activists, condemned Venezuela as a dictatorship, and showered praise on Argentine-owned private companies. The speaker continues trying to carve out his own moderate reputation in a coalition, like most political parties in the country, that appears to be always on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

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Martín Gambarotta

Martín Gambarotta

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