With the PASO primaries now just two weeks away and the fallout from the so-called ‘Olivosgate’ scandal deepening by the day, President Alberto Fernández is desperately seeking a solution to fresh legal woes.
The under-fire Peronist leader is waiting to see if a federal judge will accept his offer of a large donation to a scientific institute as punishment for the breaking Covid lockdown rules in 2020, when the president held an illegal birthday party for his partner, First Lady Fabiola Yañez, at the Olivos presidential residence.
Just hours after he made that offer to Judge Sebastián Casanello on Thursday, however, Fernández learned that he had been charged with breaking the Covid-19 protocols he himself had signed into effect via presidential decree.
Federal Prosecutor Ramiro González formally notified the president that he is one of the accused in an investigation into the incident, which came to light two weeks ago when photographs from the event were published in local media outlets.
Earlier in the day, the president had sought to head off the issue, presenting himself before Casanello to make his case. Seeking to draw the issue to a close, Fernández offered to donate half of his next four monthly pay cheques to the ANLIS-Malbran scientific research institute as a penalty for his actions. He delivered a legal brief to the judge after a federal prosecutor opened a preliminary investigation into the matter.
"As I have already publicly stated, I assume full responsibility for what happened in the Olivos residence,” wrote the president. “I must clarify that without prejudice to the fact that the events investigated here have taken on a public dimension, they took place within the orbit of family privacy."
He continued: "It was an encounter that should never have occurred, as a result of recklessness, but that in no way could constitute a crime."
Judge Casanello must now decide whether to advance the investigation or accept the offer of the president and put an end to the judicial procedure.
Both allies in his own Frente de Todos coalition and opponents from Juntos por el Cambio have criticised the president. Opposition lawmakers would like to impeach Fernández if possible, though there is a little chance of them winning the necessary support to do so in Congress.
‘Act of recklessness’
"Celebrating Fabiola's birthday was not a fraudulent manoeuvre, it was an act of recklessness and negligence. I did not expect to be summoned, nor did I seek to influence a prosecutor or a judge, nor did I look for a 'lobbyist' lawyer. I presented myself spontaneously, and I said what I think legally happened. I already gave my explanation – it was something that should not have happened," Fernández said in an interview on Friday with Radio 10.
The president said his conscience is clean, as a “crime did not happen” and no-one was infected with Covid-19 as a result of the dinner.
The scandal first broke two weeks ago, with the publication of photographs taken at the event. The president was then denounced in a criminal complaint by a number of individuals, despite apologising publicly.
"I want all Argentines to know that it hurt me, it worried me. I made a mistake, a slip, an oversight – it was a product of the vortex" of the first year of being head of state while faced with the coronavirus pandemic, he explained, calling the issue “outdated.”
Nevertheless, the incident has sparked anger among many Argentines, especially the relatives of victims who have lost their lives to Covid-19 since March 2020, when the virus first arrived in Argentina. Since then, more than 110,000 people have died, with more than 5.1 million infections.
The release of the photograph also underlines the proximity of the forthcoming elections, with the PASO primaries set to take place on September 12, followed by the midterms on November 14.
Pollsters agree that it’s difficult to forecast the impact of the Olivos scandal on the electorate, with voters more likely to be motivated by the economic downturn. Argentina has been in recession for three years but there are signs that a rebound is kicking in following the strict lockdowns imposed to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
"After looking at all the polls, I have decided to wait for the results of the elections," quipped political analyst Raúl Timerman in a post on Twitter on Friday.
Political scientist and consultant Raúl Aragón downplayed the scandal’s potential impact.
“No-one who has decided to vote for Frente de Todos is going to change their vote because of that photo. The first numbers that we are seeing show that it has had no impact," he said.
Argentina will renew a third of the Senate and half of the lower house Chamber of Deputies in the November midterms.