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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 26-12-2020 09:47

The Cabinet creaks

The president is trying to drive home the message that he will not be steamrolled by the Kirchnerite wing into sacking half of his Cabinet.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, inevitably, did a lot of talking when she was head of state between 2007-2015. In doubt? Ask her detractors and they will roll their eyeballs recalling the many speeches she delivered. But after she left office, and the centre-right coalition leader Mauricio Macri won Argentina’s presidential elections in 2015, Fernández de Kirchner altered her approach. Suddenly, she decided that it was best to keep mostly mum. Even today, as vice-president, she continues to shun the mainstream press.

Instead she prefers to post written statements on social media to send out her message. However, last week the vice-president decided to deliver a full-blooded speech in public like in the old days. CFK addressed a gathering attended by President Alberto Fernández and Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof, who is generally considered her dauphin. And so what did CFK have to say? Many things, but basically what stuck most was her comment that ministers and secretaries should have the courage to defend the people or find themselves another job. In a written statement she issued in November, Fernández de Kirchner had already grumbled about “functionaries who don't function” – now she was openly implying that many ministers are not fit to be in office. 

Fernández de Kirchner is no ordinary veep. She is the leader of the leftist Kirchnerite wing of the ruling Peronist coalition, which has its bastion in Greater Buenos Aires. It was she who anointed Fernández – not the other way round. The veep’s fiery speech immediately prompted speculation that a Cabinet reshuffle is imminent. Fernández de Kirchner is said to be unhappy with the performance of those ministers who belong to the president's inner circle. Some reports now go as far as saying that she is not happy with Fernández’s performance as president. The wrath is palpable. One former Kirchnerite ambassador called for the dismissal of Juan Pablo Biondi, the president's media secretary, for not applauding during CFK’s speech. The recent resignation of the government’s housing minister, who was replaced by a militant Kirchnerite mayor from Greater Buenos Aires, was taken as a sign that bigger changes would follow.

Ultimately, looking ahead, the complaints could lead to speculation that CFK (the coalition’s vote-getter and kingmaker) may not back Fernández’s potential re-election bid in 2023. But who can look so far ahead in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic? The president, as usual, tried to take Fernândez de Kirchner’s thinly veiled call for a reshuffle in his stride. All ministers had done well under pressure during the pandemic, he said. The president is trying to drive home the message that he will not be steamrolled by the Kirchnerite wing into sacking half of his Cabinet. But the whiff of a reshuffle was in the air even before CFK’s speech. Foreign Minister Felipe Solá, for instance, fumbled his report on the president's recent telephone conversation with US President-elect Joe Biden. Health Minister Ginés González García, a respected veteran Peronist doctor before the pandemic, looks under pressure. At issue is his ministry's handling of the coronavirus vaccines. Argentina has been in talks with a number of vaccine makers. But González García recently complained about Pfizer’s conditions for Argentina to have its vaccine. The talks with Pfizer continue, but the negotiations were bogged down just when the public needed some good news from the coronavirus front after a punishing year. The president has meanwhile constantly championed the Russian-made vaccine. But the first shipment has been flown over from Russia only just before the end of the year after a lot of controversy about whether it is fit for people over 60.

The management of the vaccination programme is a crucial issue. The national government can't afford to make too many mistakes: 2021 is an election year after all. The novelty about the bickering in the ruling coalition is that there is no talk of a formal split. The opposition centre-right Juntos por el Cambio coalition, which includes Macri, is also not fully united and suffering problems of its own. Former Macri administration officials openly criticise the moderation of Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta. Like the Peronists, coalition members say they will stick together to avoid electoral disaster. A new problem for Macri and Rodríguez Larreta is that a group of maverick neoliberal politicians have joined the electoral race. These new libertarians accuse Macri of failing to deliver capitalist reforms when he was president and analysts worry they may shave off votes from the more mainstream option.

But back to the Fernández-Fernández saga. President and vice-president do agree on one thing: criticising the Supreme Court. Yet it is not entirely clear how committed the president is to what he says. Fernández cut his teeth as a backroom Peronist party operative. The impression is that he half-heartedly says what the people he is engaging with at any given time expect him to say – and that even includes the powerful veep. Fernández de Kirchner accuses the Supreme Court of being part of an orchestrated plan to frame her and her supporters through fabricated cases. Those corruption accusations against her in court have not gone away.

The president could offer some peaceful resistance to the vice-president’s whipping by simply refraining from reshuffling the Cabinet. Fernández had an asado dinner with his ministers and secretaries on Wednesday. Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero said Fernández was happy with his team, but that is only half of the official story. The speculation about changes has not gone away. The ruling coalition must also name candidates for next year's midterms – and Fernández de Kirchner is likely to have the last word over the president in that department.

 

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Martín Gambarotta

Martín Gambarotta

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