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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 29-08-2020 08:46

Knocking on the Senate's door

Military coups are a thing of the past, but presidents struggling to finish their mandates are not.

Spring is approaching. But spring is not in the air – there's nothing to be jolly about as the pandemic rages on in Latin America. It's likely that Argentina's quarantine (first announced on March 20) will continue in some form until springtime arrives on September 21 – for the first time on Wednesday, more than 10,000 coronavirus cases were reported in a single day (although the official count lags behind and should not be taken at face value). The virus is spreading beyond the hardest hit Buenos Aires metropolitan area (2,355 cases were reported in the rest of the country on Wednesday), putting the health system under stress nationwide.

Nevertheless life, including politics, goes on. Nothing can kill Argentina's chronic political volatility. Part of the opposition centre-right coalition seems to think that President Alberto Fernández, Argentina’s centre-left Peronist leader, will be engulfed by severe crisis, sooner rather than later.

Throwing a stick of rhetoric dynamite into the broth of speculation, former caretaker president Eduardo Duhalde, speaking on a late night talk show, suggested that next year's midterm elections will not take place and that the country could even be hit by a military coup. Say that again? Talking about a military coup has been out of bounds for mainstream politicos since the return to democracy in 1983. And this is not just anyone: Duhalde, a former Peronist kingmaker who was forced into semi-retirement after he lost an internal power struggle to Kirchnerismo for the control of Buenos Aires province in 2005, served as caretaker leader from 2002-2003, then initially backing Néstor Kirchner after he won the presidency in 2003. Today, Duhalde portrays himself as a moderate consensus-builder who meets regularly with Fernández to dish out advice. It was Duhalde, for  example, who recently urged the president, in public, to scrap a plan to nationalise the debt-ridden grain exporter Vicentin, something that eventually happened.

Duhalde's baffling comments about a military coup against a government that lends an ear to what he has to say can be brushed aside as nothing more than a late night gaffe by a semi-retired politician who doesn't know when to call it a day. But it also shows just how hooked the bigwigs are on speculating about nightmare scenarios. Military coups are a thing of the past, but presidents struggling to finish their mandates are not.

On August 17, a national holiday, thousands took to the streets nationwide to join an anti-government demonstration. A similar protest (much smaller, on a rainy day) was called for Wednesday outside Congress as the Peronist-controlled Senate geared up to debate the justice system reform bill sponsored by the national government. Critics claim the reform, which is designed to dilute the power of 12 federal courts based in Buenos Aires City, among other measures, is being pushed through to take the legal pressure off Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (president in 2007-2015), who is facing a number of corruption cases in the courts dating back to her time at president. 

Further criticism was hurled at the justice system reform bill this week when a clause was included specifying that judges must formally report if they are subjected to pressure by lobbies (including the press) when handling cases. However, Kirchnerite lawmaker Oscar Parrilli later on the floor of the Senate, amid claims of a clampdown on press freedom, that the wording would be altered to remove the press from the equation. The ruling Frente de Todos coalition dismissed the criticism as nonsense and, putting on a good show, Fernández de Kirchner on Wednesday even asked the City Police to remove barriers placed to protect the Senate, claiming that there was no reason for them to be there. The demonstrations continued on Thursday with protesters brandishing Argentine flags, signs and slogans against the court system reform, and banging pots outside the newly barrier-free Congress. (The Senate session was opening at the time of writing.)

The centre-right opposition is divided over these agitated protests even when formally the Juntos por el Cambio (JxC) coalition is coming under strain. The August 17 protest was not endorsed by Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, a key member of JxC who has worked in bipartisan harmony with the president during the coronavirus crisis. The hardliners have closed ranks behind former president Maurico Macri, accusing the government of using the lockdown as an excuse to curtail civil liberties. 

Former security minister Patricia Bullrich has implied that Rodríguez Larreta is a good administrator but lacks political substance to lead the opposition proficiently against a Peronist government. The 64-year-old has been doing a lot of confrontational talking in Macri's name. Still, Rodríguez Larreta has criticised the court system reform saying that it’s not the right time to discuss the issue. But the mayor, who performs well in polls, has not dropped his calls for consensus. 

Also talking again is former Buenos Aires Province governor María Eugenia Vidal, another moderate who is breaking ground. Bullrich has been speaking Macri's mind, according to most, and is openly preaching “disobedience.” Now Vidal is likely to speak Rodríguez Larreta’s mind and call for moderation. Vidal – who was routed in Buenos Aires Province by the Peronist coalition in last year's election – has politely pleaded with the public to give JxC “another chance” to rule. To the centre-right moderates, fiercely opposing a government that has not celebrated a year in office amounts to political suicide. Fernández's popularity has dropped, but it still remains high (about 45-50 percent).

The arguing never stops. Fernández also took a jab at Macri, his predecessor this week, claiming that during a private telephone conversation in March, the former president said he did not favour a drastic lockdown and that fatal victims were part of the coronavirus equation. Macri said in a written statement that the current president's take on the conversation was incorrect. Fernández stuck by his story.

The interaction between the national government and Buenos Aires City administration is far more civil, though suddenly there is some shoving going on between the Presidency and City Hall after the national Education Ministry (with the support of the teachers unions) turned down a plan for 5,000 isolated Buenos Aires City children lacking Internet at home to go back to school, arguing it poses a health risk.

Let’s rewind to Duhalde's comments for a minute, which he said during a TV interview on Wednesday could be put down to stress. The former president first spoke about a coup shortly after the government signed a decree to freeze telephone, Internet and cable television rates until the end of the year. The decree regulates the telecommunications market declaring it a “public service,” meaning that future increases will have to be cleared by the national government to go into effect. The decree has irked business leaders, especially in the media sector, and there is some loud complaining going on by some very powerful people. Polls show sweeping public support for the president's decision that is probably a bid to curb inflation.

How will the regulation of a key market go down internationally? The decree came only days before Argentina formally wrote to the International Monetary Fund requesting the opening of talks over a new program, to replace the infamous 2018 agreement reached with the Macri administration. The government aims to hammer out a new agreement with the IMF to replace the existing standby accord worth US$57 billion (US$44 billion have already been delivered). The Fernández administration made some orthodox promises in the letter to the IMF. “We are determined to restart the process of pursuing a consistent fiscal path once the effects of the pandemic disappear,” it said.


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Martín Gambarotta

Martín Gambarotta


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