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OP-ED | 03-12-2021 23:12

The lady’s not for burning

Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner makes a blazing return to centre stage after a long pre-electoral and post-electoral silence.

As the late British prime minister Harold Wilson said half a century ago, “a week is a long time in politics,” but despite the eternal truth of that aphorism (even more so in Argentina), nothing happening in the past week eclipses the importance of last weekend’s developments. Those had one sole protagonist – Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner making a blazing return to centre stage after a long pre-electoral and post-electoral silence.

That stage encompassed political, economic and judicial scenarios alike. Her flabbergasting acquittal in the Hotesur money-laundering trial actually preceded last weekend by a few hours (falling into a long tradition of trying to bury hot potatoes in the two days of leisure in the hope of their being forgotten by Monday) but the fallout started during the weekend. This legal triumph seems to have inspired the lady into reviving her open letter correspondence with President Alberto Fernández (why cannot she simply talk to him or give him a ring?) the next day after a six-week pause. This curious missive picks up another hot potato – the increasingly urgent agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – as a ball to send bouncing into the opposition’s court, extending full powers (and responsibilities) to President Fernández while retaining her veto rights.

Firstly, the judicial outrage. Acquittal ahead of any trial is quite simply a legal oxymoron. Public indignation and the petition in circulation are fully justified in this case. When Fernández de Kirchner was acquitted in the cases of the dollar futures and the memorandum of understanding with Iran, public anger was understandable (especially in the latter case, given the mysterious death of AMIA special prosecutor Alberto Nisman) but largely foundered against the unimpeachable legal principle that courts may not sit in judgement over the political decisions of elected governments, no matter how bad they might be. But how can huge sums of money from the beneficiaries of public works contracts being paid into the presidential family’s hotel chain possibly be presented as a state policy?

Even accepting the defence argument that, whatever the ethical objections, there was no illegality involved since all transactions passed through the banking system in some form, this good news weekend for the vice-president (with that prefix more ironic than ever) not only smashes judicial credibility but also sees the government shooting itself in the foot in terms of public opinion – as it should already have learned from last month’s midterm debacle with two-thirds of the voters rejecting them. The average citizen cannot gauge judicial verdicts according to legal fine points but only via common sense and basic ethics, where this acquittal falls flat on its face. Granting itself the benefit of the doubt over the presumed absence of any explicit crime is a recurrent cynicism in this administration – President Fernández asking for the closure of the breach of quarantine case over the first lady’s birthday party since there was no contagion (as if drunken drivers are allowed to continue on their merry way if there has been no accident as yet) or the queue-jumping of the VIP vaccine scandal.

One final question here – if it was so primitively simple for Fernández de Kirchner Kirchner to obtain acquittal last weekend within the traditional court system, why was such priority given to judicial reform last year in a country so shattered by pandemic and economic collapse, an autistic priority which has since proved electorally costly?

Turning to the letter, the presidential entourage optimistically takes the support for negotiations with the IMF at its word but they are being handed a poisoned chalice. What kind of free hand does President Fernández have for negotiations when the reminder of his own words: “Never expect me to sign anything which ruins the life of the Argentine people, never, never” implicitly rules out anything resembling austerity? And what kind of green light is there for an agreement when the vice-president retains the right to revise it? Apart from the greater stress on co-opting a “politically irresponsible” opposition, all this simply renews the original Frente de Todos strategy of installing a puppet moderate presidency to do the dirty work from which she keeps her distance in order to inherit all the backlash.

With all the different incarnations of Peronism over the past three-quarters of a century, we are still waiting to see how they reinvent themselves in the wake of last month’s rebuff – accelerated impunity and the centrality of IMF negotiations are two clues from last week but it remains a work in progress. ​

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