On Saturday, October 17, the ruling centre-left Peronist coalition finally had its chance to flex its legendary muscle. President Alberto Fernández has faced a number of loud anti-government demonstrations during the coronavirus pandemic, partly agitated by the hawkish wing of the centre-right opposition Juntos por el Cambio coalition, headed by former president Mauricio Macri.
October 17 is known as Peronist Loyalty Day locally, it marks the anniversary of a day in 1945 when a huge demonstration was held in support of Juan Perón, 75 years ago. Last Saturday, government supporters, with the backing of the CGT trade union umbrella group, planned to throw a birthday party on social media. The online festivities, however, were snarled by technical problems, which some officials put down to sabotage. So thousands instead jumped into their cars and staged a real life demonstration. The president, meanwhile, delivered a speech at CGT headquarters.
The opposition has been emboldened by its own flag-waving demonstrations in recent weeks, called against what it says is a deliberate plan by the Fernández administration to use the global pandemic as an excuse to curtail civil liberties. The government has looked to be on the defensive even with acceptable polls ratings after a steep drop, especially now that one million coronavirus cases have been confirmed in Argentina.
On October 17, the national government tried to regain the initiative. To some observers, Loyalty Day came and passed with some subtle but notable observations. For one, Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the leader of the coalition’s powerful leftist Kirchnerite wing, did not personally take part in the celebrations.
The CGT is packed with trade union leaders who feel comfortable with the president but not necessarily with the left-wingers who are part of his government. A recent meeting between the CGT’s bosses and the neoconservative AEA business lobby irked Kirchnerites in the Frente de Todos coalition. Still there is no evidence that a major rift is about to happen, despite speculation that Fernández de Kirchner is unhappy with the Cabinet’s performance and favours a reshuffle.
Once again, the challenge for Argentina’s two major coalitions is to stick together even when the internal differences are patently obvious.
The opposition, now including Macri who has granted a series of high-profile interviews after staying mum for a long while, has been constantly throwing little jabs at the government. The general impression is that the Cabinet ministers have not been jabbing back fast enough. The ministers are trying to mend that by granting media interviews. Macri’s latest move was to declare that the ruling Peronist coalition represents those Argentines who don’t work. His comments were echoed by the Radical Party lawmaker Alfredo Cornejo, who said that the opposition coalition represents Argentina’s productive belt (supposedly Buenos Aires City, and the provinces of Santa Fe and Córdoba).
Macri is back with a bang. The former president, unlike the wing of the opposition headed by Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, continues to stoke polarisation. The latter has worked with the national government during the pandemic, polls well and is considered a potential presidential candidate in 2023. But during one of his recent interviews, Macri said that Cornejo is also a potential presidential candidate.
The former president has ruled out running for a congressional seat in next year’s midterm elections, saying he does not need parliamentary immunity despite an ongoing court investigation into allegations that the AFI federal intelligence service spied on politicians and other figures during his time in office. Macri has denied that he had ordered the alleged illegal espionage.
Other uncomfortable topics of discussion are creeping up too: he is now also being forced to take questions about allegations made against him by his estranged brother, Mariano Macri, in a new book. Macri’s brother accuses him of tarnishing the reputation of their father, late business mogul Franco Macri, and alleges massive banking fraud within the family companies.
The coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact continues to dominate the news though. The opposition blames the quarantine measures first announced by the president (with Rodríguez Larreta’s support) on March 20 for the catastrophic situation. The government blames the pandemic itself, not the lockdown, for the economic problems. The national government’s biggest success, the recent restructuring of US$65 billion worth of debt by Economy Minister Martín Guzmán, has been obliterated by rampant inflation, unemployment, poverty and the rocketing price of the dollar in the black market.
Guzmán’s authority was put in doubt last month when the Central Bank tightened the screws on the strict currency exchange controls and other government officials spoke openly about how to best deal with the crisis. Now it appears that the minister is back in charge, after the Central Bank’s emergency policies failed to control the peso's devaluation and new measures were put in place.
Guzmán, a US-trained academic with no experience in public administration prior to his appointment last December, has now effectively undone some of the Central Bank measures (with limited success) that further regulated dollar purchases via the financial markets. Where does that leave Central Bank Governor Miguel Pesce, a member of the president's inner circle?
Guzmán’s standing was further enhanced after the International Monetary Fund chief Kristalina Georgieva said she had held talks directly with him. Argentina must hammer out a new deal with the IMF to reschedule the payment of US$44 billion injected by the Fund during the Macri presidency. Fernández recently said that he allowed “debate” about policies in the Cabinet, but that Guzmán has the last word. The minister at press time was readying more announcements in a bid to control the situation.