Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin found herself in deep trouble last year when a newspaper told the citizenry that the State had been footing the bill for the breakfast cereals she consumed when staying in her official residence. The scandalous revelation shocked a country which prides itself on being regarded as squeaky-clean, but the young lady who heads its government managed to keep her job after promising to return the money.
Luckily for a great many Argentine politicians, they do things differently here. Nobody would bother to ask Alberto Fernández who pays for what he eats and drinks while performing his presidential duties. Presumably, he often dines at public expense, but it so happens that in Argentina arrangements which, in the countries he says he admires would be seen as unacceptably corrupt, are taken for granted. After all many, perhaps most, politicians are either on the take themselves or are happy to support those, who if the available evidence is anything to go by, certainly are.
Even though Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has been plausibly accused of squirrelling away billions of dollars, she is still considered to be the most powerful person in the land, so powerful in fact that a refusal by her to say anything about a significant issue is enough to put the entire political community on edge.
Last week, a federal court gave the go-ahead to a probe into some of her alleged wrongdoings which, experts say, means that next year, or the one after that, she and her alleged accomplices, of which there are about a hundred, could well face trial. As in Italy, in this part of the world cases involving corruption tend to advance, if that is what they do, in a remarkably leisurely manner; there is little chance of Cristina getting locked up any time soon so we can finally stop inserting words like “alleged” when mentioning the charges against her because they remain sub judice. Meanwhile, her problems with the law will continue to dominate Argentine politics and could even decide the country’s fate.
Ever since December 2007 when she became president, Cristina has been doing her best to reshape the Judiciary, but despite her own efforts and those of her supporters, she has failed to remove all the judges and prosecutors who think even top politicians should not be above the law. But far worse, from her point of view, than her inability to subject the Judiciary to the purge she thinks it needs is the change in the political climate. In last year’s parliamentary elections, the Peronist share of the vote came to less than 34 percent. If it shrinks still further, the many Peronists who think Cristina is a liability but put up with her because they believe they need her support could come to the conclusion it would be better to ditch her before she does more damage to their prospects. Were this to happen, members of the Judiciary who up to now have been sitting on the fence, would be more than willing to join those who want to see her get her just desserts.
It would be hard to exaggerate the harm being done by Cristina’s obsession with the legal difficulties she brought upon herself. Had she not taken advantage of her eight years as president to rake in huge amounts of money and allow her employees and cronies to do the same, recovery from the many ills afflicting the country would be far easier. Its international standing would certainly be different; Cristina’s dislike of democracies whose leaders feel obliged to demand measures to stamp out corruption is behind the present government’s warm embrace of brutal regimes like those of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, as well as Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China.
Her fear of the law is also affecting the government's economic strategy, such as it is; Cristina knows she simply cannot afford to upset the poverty-stricken inhabitants of the shanty towns and equally squalid neighbourhoods in the Buenos Aires Province slum belt because it is there that she gets most of the votes that enable her to keep the parliamentary privileges on which her freedom depends. Catering to their needs, even when this entails encouraging inflation and making life impossible for farmers and businessmen, is for her an absolute priority not because she feels much sympathy for the desperately poor but because she cannot do without their votes.
To raise money to pay for the necessary handouts and other expenses, the government of which Cristina is the main share-holder is waging a war of attrition against Buenos Aires City by depriving it of financial resources. It is also campaigning against the values Kirchnerite ideologues imagine porteños hold dear, such as a belief in hard work, self-improvement and social mobility when this is made possible by making the most of one’s personal endowments rather than political activities. The official view is that everyone deserves to get something for nothing.
Cristina evidently fears that the austerity programme the government will have to press on with no matter what happens in the coming weeks will cost her the support of the millions of men and women who, despite the appalling consequences which her mishandling of the economy has already had for them, still kid themselves that she is on their side.
No doubt this is why her son Máximo Kirchner, who sits in the Lower House and is chief of the La Cámpora, an organisation which specialises in finding sinecures for its members, wants nothing to do with any agreement with the International Monetary Fund, even though he must be aware that breaking with it would make life even harder for much of the population. As far as Máximo and his mother are concerned, if the expected disaster is blamed not on them but on the IMF and, of course, Mauricio Macri, aided and abetted by those two traitors to the Kirchnerite cause, Alberto Fernández and Martín Guzmán, it would be better for the country to go under than for it to continue treading water.
Could they get away with it? Opinion polls suggest that a large majority of those who last year voted for candidates running for the ruling coalition think that on the whole it would be better to sign a deal with the IMF, so if Cristina and those who obey her every word manage to scupper one and the consequences are as bad as almost all economists are warning, they risk getting abandoned by most of the men and women who still have faith in them. Should that happen, they would have to choose between hoping against hope that the creaking judicial machinery they despise does not pick up speed and looking for a country which would be unlikely to extradite them.