When Cristina Fernández de Kirchner instructed Alberto Fernández to lead the pan-Peronist ticket in the 2019 elections, the general reaction was that it was a smart choice. A former Cabinet chief in both her administration and her late husband Néstor’s, Alvberto was seen as a keen alliance-weaver, one with the political flexibility to please both hardline Kirchnerites and certain key anti-Peronists, including the group of influential decision makers dubbed the “círculo rojo” with close ties to the Argentine “titans of industry.” Indeed, Alberto had had a long history of reaching across the aisle, so to speak, having been an attorney for both Grupo Clarín and Grupo Indalo. Alberto had also been a key player in the execution of the Kirchnerite strategy of subjugating critical media outlets — with Editorial Perfil as a prime target — and after leaving power was deeply critical of his now current vice-president, winning the praise of those opposed to her. Quite the balancing act.
The line between being an able negotiator with the capacity to speak “eye to eye” with almost anyone, and becoming a charlatan is a fine one, particularly in politics. Once in power, President Alberto’s pragmatism began to be turned against him, as the opposition — and parts of the ruling coalition — sought to paint him as an incompetent fool. In the field of play he chose, it’s all about votes, and therefore about public perception. And Alberto appears to be losing terribly at it. He’s not alone, as several of Argentina’s most important political leaders have irreversibly high disapproval rates, making them essentially “unelectable,” starting with former presidents Cristina and Mauricio Macri.
The infamous picture that made the rounds this past week showing Alberto and First Lady Fabiola Yáñez celebrating the latter’s 39th birthday at the height of a hard lockdown promises to be a hard hit for the president to swallow. The picture follows a previous “leak” of a list of entries to the presidential residence in Olivos a few weeks ago where the attention was focused on a former model named Sofia Pacchi, an official assistant to the first lady. That list, which was heavily redacted, revealed Alberto and Fabiola had received visits on both of their birthdays (April 2 for the president, and July 14 for the first lady) that extended deep into the night, making it clear that they were hosting dinners or parties as the rest of the country was confined under “phase one” of the ASPO lockdown.
The damning picture is particularly pernicious for the president. In it, he can be seen surrounded by another 11 people and his famous dog, Dylan. They are indoors, without social distancing or face masks. The group seem happy, they had drunk wine and champagne. A cake was waiting. Fabiola’s young crew — apparently all of them under 40 years old — stayed until 1.47am. The group included Fabiola’s personal stylist, her hair dresser, two advisers who are on government payroll and a group of friends who even brought a child along for the event. The country was going through the fourth month of traumatic quarantine, as Covid-19 infections and deaths continued to climb stubbornly.
While there was a political debate at the time regarding whether or not the severity of the restrictions were justified, the public at the time were rallying behind the triumvirate created by the president with Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof and City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta. All three of them counted on record-high approval ratings as a scared society backed political collaboration after years of polarisation. “Professor Alberto,” as he was dubbed by many for his college lecture-like press conferences explaining to a weary nation that they should continue to remain confined in order to ease the strain on the national health system, was generally trusted by the population.
The picture delivers a blow to his credibility, yes, but now it comes at a time when it is already seriously in question. As the political bickering between the ruling Frente de Todos and the opposition Juntos por el Cambio coalitions began to take precedent over the fear of Covid-19 infection and death, President Fernández has been forced out of his comfort zone in the moderate area and dragged closer to the hardliners in Vice-President Fernández de Kirchner’s corner. Alberto has been losing face everywhere – he was questioned internally for his administration’s position on Venezuela and Cuba, and externally for its contradictions on the matter. He was questioned by Cristina who spoke of “ministers who aren’t working” and by Rodríguez Larreta who used the idea of keeping schools open to oppose the national government. The president has been questioned for several unforced errors, particularly during public speaking, an area in which he relies heavily on improvisation. He lost his health minister and close friend, Ginés González García, to a “VIP vaccination” scandal, and managed to insult almost all of Latin America by declaring to the world that “Mexicans come from Indians, Brazilians from jungles, and Argentines from the boats.”
Violating the very same public health measures he imposed on the population, which were the basis of such widespread support at the time, has the double impact of eroding Alberto’s own credibility and society’s tolerance for restrictions during a pandemic. Those who supported the president at the time will undoubtedly feel disappointed and lied to, while those politically opposed to him will feel their suspicions regarding him have been confirmed.
There will undoubtedly be an electoral impact from this picture. The ruling coalition already has an uphill battle ahead of it, as shown by administrations across the globe that have suffered the impact of governing during a pandemic. Yet, the eclectic nature of the Frente de Todos may help it swallow part of the hit. And Alberto has proven his resilience in the past, particularly in his capacity to flip-flop on issues with a straight face. His value doesn’t reside in public speaking, but in being the perfect placeholder to keep the whole house of cards standing. Whether that’s enough for these midterm elections of 2023 is yet to be seen.