What would be the impact of a full-on break between President Alberto Fernández and his VP, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner? Would it, for example, lead to a governability crisis that would precipitate a run on the peso and spark another painful devaluation? Or, on the other hand, are we inoculated for the time being given the recent approval by the board of the International Monetary Fund of Argentina’s sovereign debt restructuring? Is the political marriage of convenience past the point of no return, making it such that a further deterioration in the relationship cannot make things even worse from a political standpoint? Or would the consequence be a political crisis that forces Alberto to sacrifice his mandate by resigning and calling for early elections?
All of these scenarios have been circulating over the past several weeks as the ruling Frente de Todos coalition endures an internal civil war between Kirchneristas and Albertistas, if there is such a thing. The opposition has taken a back seat here, happy to look on at the Peronist field slowly sawing off a limb in its very visceral attempt to digest an IMF deal that, for some, is the latest sign that an electoral victory in 2023 is impossible. (It is definitely easier to be in opposition in this country, except for the benefit of abusing the state to offer well-remunerated government posts to friends and supporters.) Others suggest the IMF deal paves the way for Alberto’s dreams of re-election (which he acknowledged for the first time a few months ago in our longfrom interviews in Perfil), indicating it is a further step away from the Kirchnerite-dependence that has been the defining electoral factor for Peronists for nearly two decades.
Alberto and Cristina haven’t appeared in public together since inaugurating the legislative year in Congress in early March and according to several reports haven’t spoken on the phone either. A few weeks later, as the Senate was debating the fateful IMF restructuring, Fernández de Kirchner’s office was targeted by protesters who attacked it with rocks, in what Kirchnerites called a premeditated act. While the Cristinistas emphatically rejected the attack and called for justice, the Albertistas remained eerily quiet, with the president only messaging his supposed number-two-in-command on encrypted application Telegraph later in the day, a gesture that was quickly picked up by the media, raising further suspicions. Of course, Máximo Kirchner — the leader of the Kirchnerite youth organisation La Cámpora — threw the metaphorical first rock when he surprisingly resigned from his position as leader of the Peronist bloc in the Chamber of Deputies, citing ideological differences with how the IMF deal was negotiated. Cristina was quiet as well, as the press quickly picked up that she “didn’t agree” with the deal. Message comes and message goes.
The Kirchnerites voted against the IMF deal both in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate, but they did wait to see if effectively the deal would pass. Cristina didn’t want to be responsible for another debt default, but once approval had been secured her sector had gone all-out against one of Alberto’s marquee policy victories. That same kind of pragmatism allowed CFK to sit down for a quick chat with the newly-arrived Marc Stanley, the charismatic and hyperactive US ambassador who visited her office in the Senate this week, which will cost some six million pesos to fix. Through social media network Twitter the vice-president noted they spoke about money-laundering, human-trafficking and human rights, adding that she had requested Washington’s collaboration on a bill that would create a national fund to pay the IMF with recovered assets. Stanley, who became an overnight sensation after having his first taste of Fernet and Coke live on social media the previous week, gave his own version of how the meeting went: “It was an honour to meet the Vice President and President of the Senate [Cristina Fernández de Kirchner]. We share a love of family, love of country and love of chocolates from Patagonia!”
Even the IMF has raised the issue of this proxy war between the president and his veep in its approval of the US$44.5-billion restructuring. In an incredible passage of a press release, it wrote: “Directors noted that elevated exposure to Argentina over an extended period creates major financial and reputational risks for the Fund,” adding that “finely balanced judgments will be needed when assessing difficult trade-offs that are likely to arise during the life of the programme.” The IMF deal is, of course, dead before its arrival given its underlying premises have already proven to be way off, starting with inflation and international energy costs. IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva already acknowledges “early programme recalibration” lies ahead, even while asking Argentine authorities to own the programme. The IMF is always political and in the same way that it “saved” Macri from an implosion by giving him an ill-conceived record bailout, it is now throwing the Frente de Todos a lifeline to make it to 2023 in one piece, so to speak. And Cristina knows this.
For now, the “War of the Roses” between President Fernández and Mrs Fernández de Kirchner hasn’t seen the blood reach the river. While Máximo and his fellow Camporistas have rained on Alberto’s parade, they haven’t stuck a stick in the wheel yet. The pressure on Alberto’s economic team has increased as inflation continues to rise, with Economy Minister Martín Guzmán in the crosshairs (he has been for some time now), along with Productive Development Minister Matías Kulfas and even Central Bank President Miguel Ángel Pesce. An expert tightrope walker and the third leg of the coalition, Lower House Speaker Sergio Massa worked hard to get the IMF deal passed but is equally displeased with Guzmán and the president. His presidential aspirations are clear, but his attempt at coming out of this mess as the “firefighter” who managed to control the chaos hasn’t materialised as he would’ve hoped. Maliciously nicknamed “ventajita” (“petty advantage”) by former president Mauricio Macri, Massa appears to still be weighing his options. Among the opposition, Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta is also having his own problems keeping the Juntos coalition in line, but all of them are happy to watch the drama unfold.
Back to “The War of the Roses.” In the 1989 film of the same name, the escalation of hostilities between characters played by Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner see husband and wife hanging from a chandelier that eventually comes crashing down, killing them both, unable to figure out their divorce. Their lawyer, played by Danny DeVito, is incapable of convincing them of settling their differences before it’s too late…