By deciding slightly over two years ago to be a king-maker, rather than run the risk of getting defeated in a presidential election, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner guaranteed that sooner or later Argentina would find herself caught up in an ugly political imbroglio that could have many unpleasant economic, social and even cultural repercussions. An arrangement which would work well enough in Japan, where it has always been hard to determine exactly who is in charge of the country’s affairs, is singularly ill-suited to Argentina. Here, people want the president to behave like one, something Alberto Fernández has long been unwilling to do for fear of annoying his patroness and her many enthusiastic supporters.
Along with most other politicians, Alberto has grown accustomed to the idea that Cristina enjoys the backing of many millions of men and women and it would therefore be best to treat her with care because she is liable to fly off the handle. He is also aware that she has been plausibly accused of appropriating huge amounts of money from the public purse, which is why in 2019 she feared that even Mauricio Macri would beat her in a run-off presidential election.
The mixture of popularity and corruption which Cristina represents poses a serious threat to Argentina’s future. If she is as powerful as is generally supposed, Alberto cannot continue to defy her for very long. And unless she can prove she is far less corrupt than the mountains of available evidence suggests, her very presence makes it impossible for the opposition to cooperate wholeheartedly with the government or for the leaders of other countries to regard Argentina as a trustworthy member of the democratic community. Sincerely or not, all insist they want to root out corruption wherever it can be found.
To make the situation even worse, Argentina is trapped in the presidential system she imported from the US midway through the 19th century. Unfortunately, it is far less flexible than those in which parliament calls the shots. In the UK, a ruling coalition that suffered an electoral defeat as painful as the one which, if the results of last Sunday’s primaries are anything to by, awaits its candidates in November, would immediately be replaced by its main rival, but for something like this to happen here the country would have to go through weeks, perhaps months, of political turmoil which would be bound to have a devastating impact on an economy that is already near collapse.
For there to be any chance of the country emerging relatively unscathed from the mess Cristina, with the help of easily bamboozled voters, has got it into, Alberto would have to start behaving like a genuine president. Paradoxically, the hammering he received in the primaries, and the widespread assumption that he himself had greatly contributed to it by his often farcical handling of the pandemic, could help him do this. Forced to choose between humbly doing Cristina’s bidding by filling the Cabinet with gung-ho Kirchnerites, and taking a stand, his initial response was to refuse to let himself be humiliated. Whether or not he will persist is anybody’s guess, but his post-primary stand did point to a way out of the alligator-infested swamp into which Cristina has led the country,
Up to last Sunday night, Alberto behaved as though he took it for granted that he needed Cristina because she supplied him most of the votes that got him to where he is today. However, while that may have been true enough in 2019, there are signs that the level of support she enjoys has fallen sharply among the desperately poor people who live as best they can in the Buenos Aires Province slum belt. If this is confirmed in November, Alberto could dispense with her services and rely on the willingness of the opposition to cleave to the constitutional rules, and to the electoral timetable they imply, so he could complete his allotted term in office in exchange for letting them, not Cristina, give him the advice he clearly needs.
For the president, and for the country, such a change of tack would be splendid news. For Cristina, it would be anything but. Deprived of political power, she would immediately become fair game for hawkish judges and prosecutors who would dearly like to make a name for themselves by clapping her, and many of her cronies, in jail. Needless to say, the lady, who is no fool, is perfectly aware of what could well be in store for her if the word gets round that she has lost her magic touch. She knows she cannot afford to be seen as an ordinary mortal who, like the rest of us, is not assumed to be above the law.
While there can be little doubt that some Kirchnerites are die-hard authoritarians who would be happy to see Argentina go the way of Venezuela, Nicaragua or Cuba, thereby striking what they imagine would be a devastating blow against capitalism, Yankee imperialism and the like, Cristina’s political preferences (insofar as they can be discerned) have less to do with ideological questions than with her own personal fate and that of her offspring. As her late husband, Néstor Kirchner, once candidly remarked, having leftists on his side made it easier for him to ward off attacks by reactionaries worried about sleaze. For him, and for Cristina, this has certainly been the case, but the protective armour self-styled progressives provided her with is now wearing thin, largely because, by supporting her, such people have discredited themselves. What moral authority they may once have had is gone.
Urged on by Cristina and her followers, Alberto’s government has shown a soft spot for autocracies in Latin America and further afield because they take what one might call a pragmatic view of corruption; if their friends are on the take, they are entitled to enrich themselves, but if their enemies do the same, they deserve to be put behind bars or, if they are too troublesome, shot out of hand. As far as Cristina is concerned, if the choice is between her having to pay for her sins in an orderly democracy in which crooks get their deserts and seeing Argentina degenerate into a dictatorship run by gangsters who would treat her kindly, she would be more than happy to see democracy replaced by something she would find less alarming. However, for that to happen she would need to conserve the support not just of politicians who have pledged her their fealty but also much of the populace, especially the poverty-stricken inhabitants of districts like La Matanza where, as the primaries warned her, more and more people are beginning to turn against their alleged political benefactors.