Argentina’s leftist Peronist leader, Alberto Fernández, celebrated one year in office on Thursday. The president gets the first say: he said on Twitter that the pandemic had dramatically changed what he'd planned for his first 365 days in office. The emergency, Fernández said, had forced the government to scramble to do “not what you wanted, but what was needed.” Argentina has now endured 40,000 coronavirus deaths and the economy has been crippled. “We had no choice,” the president said, but to concentrate on fighting the virus. Despite the ugly fatality rate, the national government and the provincial administrations (of all political hues) can still claim that Argentina’s health system did not collapse under severe stress.
Fernández first announced a sweeping lockdown to a shocked nation on March 20 and if you stretch your memory back, you will recall that Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta (a member of the centre-right opposition Juntos por el Cambio coalition) and Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof (a Kirchnerite close to Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner) initially worked well together to fight the virus.
Yet the fact remains that for all the pain caused by a killer disease coming out of nowhere, even it has not been able to put an end to Argentina's infamous political rift. The agitation has been extremely loud and the confrontational wing of the opposition coalition has blasted, among many things, the president's decision to keep schools closed this year. Still, the split persists. The ruling Peronist coalition blames the pandemic for the economic collapse; the opposition claims the Fernández administration got its drastic pandemic policies all wrong and that ultimately the shutdown, not the pandemic itself, is the reason why inflation is still high (37 percent for the year, more or less) and poverty (45 percent, according to the Catholic University of Argentina) and unemployment have increased dramatically.
Now Fernández and Rodríguez Larreta, who have not stopped coordinating health measures despite their escalating spats, are locked in a legal battle over the national government's decision to reduce the amount of federal revenue-sharing funds awarded to Buenos Aires City (to pay for salary increases for the Buenos Aires province police).
Rodríguez Larreta, a likely presidential candidate next time out, has been accused by the hawkish wing of his opposition centre-right coalition, headed by former president Mauricio Macri, of being too soft on Fernández. But most prominent Juntos por el Cambio leaders appear to be siding with Rodríguez Larreta's moderate approach. Where does that leave Macri's political ambitions?
The tension in the ruling Frente de Todos coalition is also glaring. Fernández de Kirchner, the leader of the leftist Kirchnerite wing of the coalition, issued a statement on Wednesday to mark the government’s first year in office. The former president said the government had “made a great effort” to deal with the pandemic and what she claimed was Macri's disastrous neoliberal economic legacy. She praised the successful rescheduling of US$65 billion in foreign debt and the government’s emergency income plan that benefitted nearly nine million people during the pandemic’s worst moment. The pundits taking a closer look at the statement noticed that she did not name the president – instead Fernández de Kirchner only makes reference to the “executive branch.” The chilly statement comes hot on the heels of speculation that the president and vice-president are no longer on speaking terms.
In her missive, the vice-president accused the Supreme Court of orchestrating the persecution of Kirchnerite politicians during Macri’s time in office. The purported legal attacks stoked by the Supreme Court continue to this day, she alleged. CFK's criticism of the judicial branch comes after a prison sentence for corruption against Amado Boudou (her vice-president when she was head of state between 2011-2015) was upheld. Fernández de Kirchner's legal drive to have statements made by protected witnesses who testified in corruption cases against her thrown out by the courts has also failed.
Militant Kirchnerites quickly alleged that Boudou, now forced into semi-retirement and under house arrest, has been framed and they continue to voice support for him, even when it does not necessarily make electoral sense. The president, who served as Cabinet chief to CFK until 2008, was fiercely critical of Boudou and Kirchnerismo in general after he quit Fernández de Kirchner's government, siding with a non-Kirchnerite faction of the Peronist party. Now, Fernández is tolerating government officials openly defending Boudou.
The opposition says that the Kirchnerite decision to close ranks behind Boudou, even when all his legal options are finished, shows that they are also corrupt. The critics bristle with every turn of the corruption cases involving Fernández de Kirchner. But the ironic twist is that they are attacking a vice-president who has returned to a position of power and somehow does not appear to be against the ropes electorally. She tapped Fernández for president and still behaves like a Peronist kingmaker. Eventually, Fernández's re-election bid will depend on whether he is endorsed by CFK.
Still, Fernández de Kirchner’s statement shows she primarily has the courts on her mind. A judicial reform bill is latent and a presidential commission is working that could eventually pave the way to the reform of the five-member Supreme Court. Also pending is the appointment of the attorney general. The president on Thursday quashed any speculation about clashes with CFK over judicial reform by endorsing her criticism – “justice is not working well,” he declared.
The government is meanwhile trying to regain the initiative by plugging issues the pandemic had slowed down. The ruling coalition is trying to deliver on its promise to approve an abortion bill, which is demanded by feminist campaigners. The Chamber of Deputies was debating the abortion bill at press time, with a vote in the Senate likely to take place before the end of the year.
The past 12 months have been so horrible that it is perhaps best not to look back at 2020. It's best to think ahead to 2021. Next year will be all about the upcoming midterm elections. Bickering in the two main coalitions is rife, but they will try to stick together for the sake of a good electoral result. Now at issue is a move to reportedly cancel next year’s compulsory PASO primaries, usually held in August ahead of the midterm selections. The irony here is that the opposition probably needs the PASOs, first introduced by Kirchnerismo after an upset electoral defeat in 2009, to sort out its internal differences. A number of maverick “libertarian” politicians are already starting their campaigns, openly criticising Macri's centre-right credentials and that could take crucial votes away from Juntos por el Cambio. The problem, and the challenge, for the opposition is that ruling coalitions rarely lose the midterm elections two years into their mandate (that would explain why Rodríguez Larreta is not in the mood for arguments right now). The national government's political future meanwhile could hinge on how it manages the massive coronavirus vaccination programme it has promised to deliver to a country that is hurting as the year draws to an end.