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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 04-07-2020 07:29

Metropolitan area blues

The display of bipartisan civility, even with disagreements behind the scenes between Buenos Aires City and Province, is now routine. Yet the volatility has not gone away.

Argentina's sprawling metropolitan area (Buenos Aires City plus Greater Buenos Aires) is in hibernation until July 17. Permits have been restricted, checkpoints are back up and public transport is limited to essential workers in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus with the aim of avoiding the collapse of the health system.

Cases in Greater Buenos Aires are now higher than in the capital. It all sounds straightforward enough. President Alberto Fernández’s popularity is holding up even when polls show that it has dropped from extraordinarily high levels. The call to a stricter lockdown was sobering – the president made the announcement once again flanked by Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, a prominent leader of the centre-right Juntos por el Cambio coalition, and Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof, a Kirchnerite leader from the ruling Peronist Frente front. The display of bipartisan civility, even with disagreements behind the scenes between city and province, is now routine. Yet the volatility has not gone away.

For now, the national government has stopped talking about polarising issues. It has now effectively put on ice its wealth tax bill, the plan to nationalise the debt-saddled soy crusher Vicentin and its proposed sweeping reform of the court system. The only other priority apart from fighting the virus is the ongoing renegotiation of more than US$65-billion worth of debt with bondholders managed by Economy Minister Martín Guzmán. The tortuous debt negotiations with hawkish private funds continue to edge forward, but a formal deal has yet to be announced. 

The national government is in control, but the opposition has not gone away. Nor has the fuming about the strict quarantine from those who feel that the restrictions are a veiled way to curtail civil liberties. A protest has been called for July 9 (Independence Day), prompted by the debate surrounding Vicentin, the company based in Santa Fe Province which is now in administration thanks to financial mismanagement (it has been crippled by the devaluation of the peso in recent years). The opposition complainers now include ex-governor and centre-right lawmaker Alfredo Cornejo, who stated that his home province, wine-making Mendoza, should declare independence, claiming it is constantly short-changed by the federal government over pending public works projects and discretionary funds. Welcome to the Republic of Malbec.

Meanwhile, for many observers, the conflict worth watching is the latent one inside the ruling Peronist coalition, Frente de Todos. At issue now, according to the critics, is the behaviour of Buenos Aires Province Security Secretary Sergio Berni, a military surgeon who goes about his work riding on a powerful German-made motorbike. One analyst on Thursday accused Berni, who boasts that his political loyalties lie with Vice-President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, of behaving like Rambo.

This dates back to Wednesday morning, when Berni showed up at a checkpoint on a bridge and gave federal policemen an earful about how they were going about their work. The scene reportedly prompted complaints from the national government's Security Minister Sabina Frederic and speculation that the president had finally lost his patience with Berni. At press time speculation about Berni's resignation was refusing to go away, even after he publicly downplayed the situation by saying that Wednesday's shouting match with forces (over which he technically has no authority) fell under his job description.

Still, Berni could emerge from all this with political ambitions if his iron-fist approach is appreciated in crime-ridden Greater Buenos Aires. The midterm elections are next year and at some point the ruling coalition, like all political parties, will have to name its candidates. Berni, who arguably holds the most complicated job in the land, could end up running for Congress in Buenos Aires Province, though if that is the case the ruling coalition should brace for an unpredictable campaign that could backfire.

Elsewhere, quarantine complaints are ringing loud and clear after just over 100 days of lockdown in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area since March 20. The economy in April dropped 26.4 percent, official data showed this week. However, Juntos por el Cambio has its own set of problems to deal with – especially those allegations of illegal spying carried out by the AFI state intelligence agency during the 2015 to 2019 Mauricio Macri administration. A former middle-ranking official who served in Macri's letters and documents office in Government House has been arrested along with a number of AFI agents on allegations of spying on politicians (including members of Macri's own coalition), the press (including the award-winning investigative La Nación journalist Hugo Alconada Mon) and a number of trade union leaders, among others. One of Macri's young private secretaries is also under investigation amid allegations that he reported directly to the then-president and fed him information collected illegally by a network of state intelligence agents.

The case is the subject of a tussle over which court should handle it, but the ultimate question is if the investigation will touch Macri directly. All democratically-elected presidents since 1983 (with the exception of Raúl Alfonsín) have faced court investigations into alleged wrongdoings while holding office. Will Macri suffer a similar fate? The former president already seems to have lost control of a moderate wing of his coalition that includes Rodríguez Larreta (also a victim of the spying, allegedly). The former president has the support of the recently retired lawmaker Elisa Carrió – she has now hinted that she could make a comeback too. 

Carrió, a firebrand lawmaker, has accused the Alberto Fernández administration of deliberately trying to weaken the country's institutions. Rodríguez Larreta could be in trouble for his moderation if Macri's wing decides to challenge (with Carrió’s support) his authority in Buenos Aires City, a major centre-right bastion. Again, those midterms are looming – the opposition will be damaged if the espionage scandal snowballs and it leads to a formal coalition splinter of the 2021 elections.

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Martín Gambarotta

Martín Gambarotta

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