Within the convoluted ranks of the ruling Frente de Todos coalition, news of a supposed physical fight between Sergio Berni and Máximo Kirchner came in as a shock this week. It superposed with the scandalous Aníbal Fernández, reconvened from the back of the bus almost to the driver’s seat at the National Security Ministry, from which he threatened humorist Nik, revealing sensitive personal information on social media. Both of these issues, along with the flurry of announcements to “put money in peoples’ pockets” and pro-business economic measures being unveiled by Cabinet Chief Juan Manzur, form part of the frantic electoral strategy ahead of the November midterms. Whether on purpose or not, the pan-Peronist coalition led by Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is trying to drag the conversation away from the economic failures committed during their tenure in an attempt to claw back votes from the opposition coalition, Juntos, which is expected to confirm the bombshell results it attained in the PASO primaries.
The latest opinion polls suggest it will be impossible to mount a comeback for the Fernández-Fernández tandem. A series of surveys conducted by consultancy firm Federico González y Asociados delivered horrible numbers for the president and his veep – particularly the 51.6 percent rejection rate for Alberto in the all-important Buenos Aires Province, just below the 58.4 percent figure for Cristina and 58.3 percent for Governor Axel Kicillof. The polls suggest the opposition ticket, led by Diego Santilli and Facundo Manes, will take 44.5 percent of the vote – a margin of 7.1 percentage points over Victoria Tolosa Paz, with liberal economist José Luis Espert trailing in third with 6.2 percent. In the City of Buenos Aires, Juntos’ ticket – led by María Eugenia Vidal, Martín Tetaz and Ricardo López Murphy – would take 45.1 percent of the vote, compared with FdT’s Leandro Santoro’s 23.6 percent. The figures suggest support for the anti-system candidate, Javier Milei, continues to grow and would reach 20.4 percent, disputing Peronism’s second place last time out.
The real problem is no doubt the economic situation, despite Fernández and Economy Minister Martín Guzmán’s insistence on blaming the Mauricio Macri administration for the country’s woes. A different poll conducted by Facundo Nejamkis’ Opina Argentina consultancy indicated 48 percent believe the Frente de Todos is to blame for the current state of economic crisis, 31 percent blame Macri and 15 percent blame the global pandemic. Indeed, Covid-19 was the main preoccupation for only 3 percent of those surveyed, compared with 25 percent who said it was inflation.
Inflation, which is once again accelerating, was there too. Consumer prices rose 3.5 percent in September according to the INDEC national statistics bureau, breaking six months of downward trajectory and coming in at its highest level since April. Year-on-year, inflation now totals 52.5 percent – the highest reading since December 2019. This, of course, responds to the economic rebound in tandem with some of the worst moments of the Covid-19 lockdown, but also sits in the context of price controls and public utility freezes. Guzmán has held the official peso-dollar exchange rate artificially low while relying on increasingly complex restrictions on US dollar purchases put in place by Central Bank President Miguel Ángel Pesce, which of course have seriously restrained economic activity and fed the surge of the black-market exchange rates, and ultimately inflation. And, it comes after Fernández de Kirchner has ordered Guzmán to go full-on fiscal injection, meaning the money printing machines are working around the clock and flooding the streets with pesos. The so-called “Plan Platita” explained two weeks ago in this column will only contribute to feeding the black-market premium, which currently hovers around 80 percent – a vicious cycle that breeds more inflation.
With Guzmán trying to square the circle of closing a restructuring with the International Monetary Fund while taking an exhilarating hit of monetary madness, the troop in Argentina is trying to get on with some Peronism. Both Berni and Aníbal, provincial and national Security Ministers, have noted that Peronists like to argue loudly. The story of the Berni headlock has its origins in a piece written by journalist Roberto García in Perfil in which he indicates the Kirchnerite sector led by deputy Máximio K wants the tough guy out, a stance backed by the new provincial Cabinet Chief Martín Insaurralde as Governor Kicillof watches on from the sidelines. Powerless, sort of like President Alberto. With Berni in the crosshairs, journalist Carlos Pagni reported the security minister — who is a judo blackbelt — had a strong altercation with Cristina’s son which resulted in Máximo being “grabbed by the neck” and forced the intervention of a police chief. “We argued, of course. We Peronists argue hard, much more so when there’s trust between us,” Berni explained in a radio interview, “it would be dishonest to say I didn’t have a very strong argument with him, but grabbing him by the neck? No, that didn’t happen.”
The Berni Headlock could be his final act as Security Minister – he’s expected to leave the provincial administration after the election. Berni is a self-proclaimed “soldier of Cristina” who’s criticised Alberto at every chance he’s had. The president was forced to deal with him, much in the same way as he had no choice but to accept the imposition of Aníbal Fernández in his Cabinet. And Berni was always part of a specific communication strategy where the continued criticism of former national security minister Sabrina Frederic coupled with a hands-on tough guy approach on crime helped a sector the ruling coalition portray itself as proactive and provocative.
The vociferous Aníbal was brought on as part of the post-election cabinet shake-up to give the Fernández administration “political weight” and “media proficiency.” To some, it was a gift from the heavens for the opposition, as Aníbal’s verbal diarrhoea has put him in a pickle more than once in the past. This time around, he has again demonstrated that he is unfit to run the Security Ministry, using official resources to find out the school attended by the daughters of a humorist that is critical of the current administration, publishing it on Twitter with an intimidating message. One more freebie for the opposition.
The ‘Cristina Shake’ doesn’t seem to be working all that well. Much like that old meme, the ‘Harlem Shake,’ in which a single person appeared on scene dancing while the rest of the group seemed distracted doing something else, only to erupt into absolute chaos at the breakdown of the song, the Fernández-Fernández administration was incompetent before, and now appears totally lost.