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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 03-10-2020 09:49

Supreme suspense in court

These are busy days for the Supreme Court, which is caught in the middle of the fierce political polarisation that has dominated Argentine politics since the rise of Kirchnerismo in 2003.

Argentina is still grappling with the coronavirus, with more than 750,000 cases now recorded since the start of the pandemic. The quarantine has been in place since March 20 with varying degrees of restrictions, yet the spread of this strange disease, despite initial signs of bipartisan civility, has done nothing to erase the country's great political divide. 

President Alberto Fernández, Argentina’s centre-left Peronist leader, has insisted that the pandemic is to blame for the latest economic woes. He says his administration has granted emergency income to millions of people in the informal economy and for companies to pay salaries. Unemployment has now hit 13.1 percent. The economy has plummeted. Poverty is at 40.9 percent and growing. 

The centre-right opposition, which was defeated in last year's presidential elections, thinks the national government is directly to blame for the devastation. A belligerent sector of the Juntos por el Cambio coalition, which includes former president Mauricio Macri and former security minister Patricia Bullrich, has backed angry street demonstrations against the quarantine and government policies.

The latest such demonstration was a noisy motorcade in the town of Rafaela, Santa Fe Province, near the home of Supreme Court Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti. The protest came only days before the five-person Supreme Court was due to decide whether to accept an extraordinary complaint filed by three judges. They filed it after the Senate, controlled by the ruling coalition and led by Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, voted against a decision decreed by Macri when he was president that moved them to take benches in key courts. 

The judges are involved in the handling of corruption cases against Fernández de Kirchner. If you ask the opposition, the Senate vote was a blatant move to take legal pressure off of the vice-president, leader of the ruling coalition's powerful Kirchnerite wing. The government argues that the judges needed the Senate's approval to be moved from one position to another. The agitation continues to divide the opposition. The protest in Rafaela was condemned by Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, a prominent member of the centre-right coalition, who said that staging protests at the private home of another person is out of bounds.

Rodríguez Larreta has tried to work with the president in the fight against the coronavirus. His moderation seems to have paid off – the mayor is performing well in the polls and is seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2023. The City mayor’s congeniality has been tested, however, by the president's decision to reduce the capital's amount of federal revenue-sharing funds, in order to bankroll a pay hike for the Buenos Aires Province police force. Yet Rodríguez Larreta is avoiding a direct confrontation while taking the money issue all the way to the Supreme Court. The national government has now submitted a bill to Congress detailing its funding of the City’s police force.

These are busy days for the Supreme Court, which is caught in the middle of the fierce political polarisation that has dominated Argentine politics since the rise of Kirchnerismo in 2003. Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Rosenkrantz summoned a meeting for Tuesday to consider this latest complaint filed by the three judges, at which the justices unanimously decided to accept it for a hearing. Rosenkrantz was nominated by Macri to the Supreme Court and he is often at odds with the four other justices. Rosenkrantz penned a separate ruling for his decision saying that the Senate vote amounted to a case that carries sufficient institutional graveness for it be swiftly considered by the Supreme Court, leapfrogging other stages of the legal process. The three judges have been granted leave of absence. And so the conflict is momentarily on ice, pending a definitive Supreme Court ruling.

The president, prior to Tuesday's decision, had openly criticised Rosenkrantz. After the ruling a Justice Ministry official loyal to Fernández de Kirchner accused the the nation’s highest tribunal of caving in to pressure from the conservative press, business lobbies and the hawkish right-wing faction of the opposition coalition. Effectively the official was speaking the vice-president's mind. The government is also sponsoring a court system reform bill in a bid to limit the power of 12 federal judges based in Buenos Aires City.

One way of looking at the decision is that for all the talk of institutional destruction, the Supreme Court and other institutions have worked relatively well in the middle of pandemonium since 1983. The problem for the national government is that the economic malaise that comes with the pandemic punishing its credibility, less than a year after winning the election. The Central Bank, headed by a member of the president's inner circle, has continued to tighten restrictions to purchase US$200 a month amid speculation that Economy Minister Martin Guzmán, credited with recently restructuring the country's foreign debt burden, initially opposed the decision. Guzmán’s standing is suddenly in question as the Fernández administration tries to hit on the right policies to deal with a dollar drain that could lead to further devaluation.

The problem for the opposition is that it is divided on issues like the controversial protest in Lorenzetti's home town. Fernández said that specifically targeting a Supreme Court justice ahead of a crucial decision is a fascist tactic. A more conventional protest was also staged outside the Central Courthouse last week. Once again, tensions are running high.

 

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Martín Gambarotta

Martín Gambarotta

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