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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 03-04-2021 08:39

Second wave jitters

Covid cases in Argentina are picking up faster than ever amid fears of a second wave. It could be punishing for the government if the second wave turns ugly.

Covid cases in Argentina are picking up faster than ever, according to the health authorities in Buenos Aires Province. The fear is that a second wave will push the health system to the limit. Yet so far authorities have refrained from calling a total lockdown like they did back in March 2020. 

This is an election year and the government needs the economy to keep rolling. It’s difficult to figure out what voters will make of the pandemic when the time comes to cast their ballots. The compulsory PASO primaries are scheduled for August; the midterm elections take place in October. But the ruling centre-left Frente de Todos Peronist coalition is now trying to reach out to the opposition in a bid to delay the PASOs until September and the election in November. The talks with the opposition must naturally include the main centre-right opposition coalition, Juntos por el Cambio. But they have their own internal issues. Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta has worked with the national government during the pandemic and is seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2023. But former president Mauricio Macri still leads a hawkish wing of the coalition that is far more confrontational. 

Macri has released a book and is still talking like a politician who wants to hear nothing about retirement. Two Juntos por el Cambio officials on Tuesday attended talks at Government House and the election delay issue was floated. Those opposition officials now insist that any tweaking of the election schedule must be discussed in Congress. The irony is that Juntos por el Cambio could indeed need the PASO primaries to sort out its internal differences between the doves (Rodriguez Larreta) and the hawks, which include former security minister and now PRO party leader Patricia Bullrich. She could make a bid to head the slate of congressional candidates in Buenos Aires City without Rodriguez Larreta’s blessing, according to reports. The problem for the opposition in general is that it is being asked to sit down at the negotiating table in the middle of a pandemic by the Kirchnerite officials they so fiercely abhor.

Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner said on March 24 that Argentina needs more time to repay the International Monetary Fund (IMF) US$44 billion in debt because “we don't have the money.” An agreement is needed with the opposition to tackle the debt with the IMF, she declared. This is where it gets messy: Macri and Bullrich are unlikely to back any public negotiation with the Peronist administration about election dates and/or debt. The government, meanwhile, needs to buy electoral time. President Alberto Fernández addressed the public in a national broadcast last month and complained about a worldwide “vaccine desert.” The government hopes that its vaccination drive will pick up speed, but it has acknowledged that the flow is currently slow.

Amid a rise in new cases, national administration state employees were told on Monday to work from home in the three days ahead of the Easter weekend. Travel restrictions from abroad are in place in a bid to control a virulent Brazilian variant of the virus. Some opposition mayors refused to heed the calls for restrictions and went ahead with business as usual in their local administrations. Still, the question is what will happen in winter if the virus continues to bite and the nasty variants spread. Health Minister Carla Vizzotti said on Wednesday the new variants are currently under control, but practically all experts, including in Rodríguez Larreta’s camp, say the second wave is nearing.

The national government needs to get its management of the vaccination programme right. But that is only half of the story. Argentina’s chronic plight is the economy. Poverty now stands at 42 percent. Food inflation is rampant and could leave voters in the wrong mood come election time if Economy Minister Martín Guzmán does not sort it out. He is under pressure because the Kirchnerite wing of the coalition is now, clearly, not supporting the kind of private utility rate hikes that the minister has implied are required to meet fiscal targets. A deal with the IMF to reschedule debt payments will ultimately come with conditions that could be difficult to swallow for voters too. Guzmán managed to control a run on the peso late last year and the black market dollar has been controlled. Yet inflation, which last year slowed during the pandemic, has accelerated once more. It could be punishing if the second wave turns ugly.

The stress is regional too. Tempers ran high at last week’s Mercosur summit that included Fernández locking horns in an argument with centre-right Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou. The latter championed free-trade agreements and implied in his speech that the Mercosur trade bloc was “a burden.” Fernández fired back that if Argentina was a burden then it should simply choose to “leave the ship.” The biggest regional question is what will happen in Brazil with its rightist President Jair Bolsonaro in the middle of a terrible Covid crisis there. The regional landscape will shift dramatically if Bolsonaro, now without his chief ally Donald Trump, loses the presidential elections next year.

 

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Martín Gambarotta

Martín Gambarotta

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