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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 20-03-2021 08:14

Situations vacant: Justice Ministry

The president has sided with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in her battle against the judicial branch. But will he sacrifice Guzmán if members of his coalition frown at any belt-tightening to meet those targets?

The vacuum has been filled. President Alberto Fernández has named a new justice minister. But the news is that the vacuum, so abhorred by nature, took 10 days in filling. 

The outgoing minister is Marcela Losardo, a seasoned attorney and a member of the president's inner circle. The new minister is Martín Soria, a 45-year-old Peronist lawmaker from Río Negro Province. But what mattered for a while here is that the Justice Ministry was symbolically vacant for days before the president officially announced Soria's appointment. The delay is unusual because the conventional power playbook says that when you get rid of a minister you immediately name a new one to avoid any noxious chatter in the corridors of power about dithering. Any delay is usually taken as a sign of weakness here, especially among the Peronists. But Fernández took his time even when the delay prompted talk of fierce internal arguing about who should get the job. Rumours swirled that the president had been prodded into dropping his friend Losardo by Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (leader of the Kirchnerite wing of the ruling centre-left Frente de Todos coalition). The former president is facing a number of corruption allegations in court and claims she is the victim of a conspiracy to frame her, designed by conservative judges in league with supporters of former centre-right leader Mauricio Macri.

On March 1, the president delivered his state-of-the-nation speech in Congress and unleashed a fierce rhetorical attack on the judicial branch, including the five-member Supreme Court that was listening on. But almost immediately after the speech, Losardo poured cold water over the reforms, especially the president’s call for Congress to monitor the court system. If there is a conspiracy – which the Kirchnerite camp calls “lawfare” – then Losardo was supposed to do something to dismantle it by nudging her many contacts in the judicial branch. The president said in an interview with a cable television news channel that her longtime friend Losardo was “burdened” by the situation and so she had quit. Enter Soria, who has been named with CFK's blessing.

The incoming minister has consistently been confrontational with the judicial branch, embracing the vice-president's line that she is being framed. Soria has an interesting background too – he is the son of the late Peronist Río Negro governor Carlos Soria, who was shot dead by his wife (the new minister's mother) in 2012 after a New Year's Eve argument in Río Negro. The other notable angle is that the new minister and Fernández de Kirchner, who is based in the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, are practically neighbours. Río Negro, like Santa Cruz, is a southern Patagonian province, and Fernández de Kirchner knows him well from regional politics. Back in the day, however, the Sorias and the Kirchners were not allies. The new minister was elected to Congress after a series of electoral defeats in Río Negro after his family lost its grip on the province. Soria, in a way, is seeking to relaunch his political career by both closing ranks behind Fernández de Kirchner and by now presumably spearheading an aggressive crusade to reform the judicial branch. The twist is that the president says he fully agrees with Soria’s hard-knuckle calls for sweeping judicial reforms. The new minister has dismissed speculation that Fernández de Kirchner could seek a pardon. The vice-president, Soria has said, wants to be cleared in court.

What will follow is extreme turbulence in the court system, which according to the government often behaves as the judicial wing of Macri's party. A lot will depend on the result of the midterm elections scheduled to be held later this year. The election result will depend on the management of the Covid vaccination drive and the economy. Ginés González García, an experienced Peronist doctor loyal to the president, was forced to quit recently following a “VIP vaccination” scandal involving journalists, lawmakers and current and former officials. And what about the economy? Economy Minister Martin Guzmán, a US-trained economist, has managed to control an ugly run on the peso, but the official must now do something about inflation, which is running at nearly four percent a month. Guzmán is under pressure from the Kirchnerite camp to limit the extent of private utility rate increases. The economy minister's other challenge is hammering out a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to reschedule US$44 billion worth of debt the lender injected into Argentina during Macri's presidency (2015-2019). Fernández told Congress on March 1 that he will press criminal charges against Macri for his management of the debt.

Guzmán has meanwhile insisted on the importance of meeting fiscal deficit targets. Fiscal discipline, he said recently, is “not right wing” in what appears to be a bid to convince the Kirchnerite camp that certain targets must be met. The president echoed him and supports Guzmán. But the minister will have to deliver fast on his promise that inflation, especially food prices, will slow down dramatically. 

The president has sided with Fernández de Kirchner in her battle against the judicial branch. But will he sacrifice Guzmán if members of his coalition frown at any belt-tightening to meet those targets? Already Domestic Trade Secretary Paula Español (a CFK loyalist) is raising her profile and intensifying the monitoring of private companies in a bid to control prices. But is that what the rest of the Cabinet thinks? Productive Development Minister Matías Kulfas has said price controls are not enough to deal with inflation. If there is some tussling between Guzmán and the Kirchner camp, ultimately it will come down to political muscle. Much will depend on the outcome of the midterm elections in Buenos Aires Province, now ruled by Governor Axel Kicillof. He served as CFK's last economy minister until the end of her presidential mandate in 2015 and has reportedly voiced objections to Guzmán's approach. The Kirchnerite camp's standing will be boosted if Frente de Todos performs well electorally in Greater Buenos Aires. Already Máximo Kirchner, the vice-president's son, is gearing up to preside over the Buenos Aires province branch of the Peronist party. The president meanwhile will take over as the national head of the Partido Justicialista (also known by its initials in Spanish, PJ).

The ultimate irony is that a thumping win in Greater Buenos Aires could weaken the president, who will be at the mercy of that muscle loyal to the vice-president. At times already Fernández looks vulnerable and exposed. He visited Chubut province (hit by forest fires) last weekend and was caught up in the middle of a protest. Stones were thrown at the van carrying the president and his delegation and a window was smashed. Chubut Province is run by a Peronist governor loyal to Lower House Speaker Sergio Massa. The Interior Ministry blamed the provincial administration and “the great number of unsolved problems” for the violence. Temperatures are rising.

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Martín Gambarotta

Martín Gambarotta

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