Argentina is set to extend the nationwide lockdown until at least until April 12 in a bid to fight the novel coronavirus spread. The national conversation is now dominated by outrage against those who breach the “stay at home” mandate, which was originally scheduled to end on March 31. The news on the political front is that polls are showing support for President Alberto Fernández’s handling of the crisis and his popularity has increased.
The president has declared that he will prioritise “health over the economy” and has personally supervised the lockdown. Fernández has granted multiple radio and television interviews to spell out his policies, as officials scramble to avoid the collapse of the health systems in their territories. The latest policies include a decree to freeze rent prices and ban evictions for six months and similar breaks for those paying mortgages. The president has also used his many media appearances to address thornier issues: Fernández has announced that the repatriation of thousands of Argentines stranded abroad has been frozen (except for those over 65).
The president is a Peronist who for many years worked as a backroom operative, most notably as Cabinet chief for the late president Néstor Kirchner between 2003 and 2007, and throughout his career he has cultivated contacts with the press behind the scenes. Now Fernández is using those contacts – and his knowledge of the workings of the local press, which has often been fiercely critical of Peronist administrations – to be very much in the limelight himself. With millions staying at home, watching television is now a national sport once again, and the president has turned himself into the anchorman of an anxious nation. Policies dished out also include an emergency bonus for self-employed workers of 10,000 pesos and a ban on cutting utility services for three months for vulnerable sectors.
As a result, the president is scoring high approval ratings right now. But more difficult times lie ahead. He will be tested repeatedly during this crisis because a longer lockdown could deliver more economic pain to a republic that is heavily in debt and already struggling with rocketing inflation and unemployment. The government has technically frozen food prices, taking them back to March 6, but meat and vegetable price hikes are still happening, practically on a daily basis. (A kilo of oranges was worth 35 pesos on Tuesday. The next day it was going for 50 pesos in Buenos Aires City).
Fernández, while vowing to punish those who defy the lockdown with arrest, prosecution and if necessary, the confiscation of their vehicles, he has ruled out calls (fuelled by some provincial governors) for an all-out draconian state of siege while, at the same time, granting the Armed Forces (banned by law from engaging in internal security duties) a supporting role in the crisis. The Army has been distributing food in poor neighbourhoods, for example.
The coronavirus fear has also stifled the political confrontation that had gripped the country since the rise of Kirchnerismo in 2003. Take a glance at the electoral map. The presidential election last year was won by the left-leaning Frente de Todos coalition, but Buenos Aires City is still a centre-right bastion that re-elected Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta. Now the PRO leader is cooperating, not only with the Peronist president but also with Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof.
The city that Rodríguez Larreta rules borders with the sprawling Greater Buenos Aires area ruled by Kicillof. The progressive Kirchnerite, in turn, must deal with the mayors of the large working-class districts that make up Greater Buenos Aires, his coalition’s bastion of support. Some of those mayors have decided to further tighten lockdown controls in their municipalities amid speculation that they are going against the governor’s recommendations and overshooting their authority (snarling crucial transportation in the process).
So far, at least on the surface, the president is smoothly coordinating the coronavirus lockdown in the metropolitan area (Buenos Aires City plus Greater Buenos Aires) with the help of officials from different political parties. Millions pour into the city from Greater Buenos Aires on a normal working day and even with the lockdown in place the capital was grappling with traffic jams on Thursday due to copious police checkpoints.
Before the coronavirus hit there was also a looming conflict between the national government and Buenos Aires City over the president’s plans to reduce the capital’s share of federal revenue.That hatchet has now been temporarily buried. Rodriguez Larreta, lest we forget, is a member of the centre-right coalition that also includes former president Mauricio Macri, who lost last year’s elections. Now a testing moment has arrived, the mayor is at the centre of the coronavirus fight.
The former president is almost completely out of the picture. The traffic jams on the bridges, roads and highways that lead into Buenos Aires City (presumably mainly caused by commuters with permits) are a sign of just how tremendous a challenge the lockdown is for the metropolitan area. Argentina’s leaders have so far managed to control the situation. But there will be more challenges ahead if the lockdown begins to be questioned – and defied – because of its negative economic effects.