Argentina Reporting slider — 27 July 2013

By

Diego Morilla

A blinking clock on the TV news programs shows that the campaigns for congressional elections in Argentina are well underway. The PASO (Mandatory and Simultaneous Open Primaries) are days away.   This is one of the most anticipated elections in recent history.  The primaries will be held on August 11th, the general election on October 13.  The fate of the current government and the Kirchner movement hangs in the balance.

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner took office for the first time in 2007.  This followed a 4-year tumultuous, yet largely successful reign by her husband, President Nestor Kirchner.  Cristina has been beset by popular unrest after a number of decisions that worsened the divisions between her followers and the financially beaten-down middle class. The middle classes are still recovering from the disastrous economic crisis when Argentina defaulted on its sovereign bonds in 2001.

Instead of seeking reconciliation and compromise with the opposition, Cristina chose to galvanize her base, the Frente para la Victoria (Victory Front or FPV) and set it on a collision course with the rest of the political spectrum.  The opposition struggled to gain momentum, because Cristina has the advantage of spending public funds freely (including supposedly off-limits social security funds) in what is widely perceived as populist demagoguery.

A compliant congress passed financial measures such as providing funds to bankroll a network of pro-government newspapers and TV stations as well as providing economic support for the Buenos Aires local soccer league.  These  have taken their toll on a segment of the population already burdened by steep income taxes.  Argentinians are worried about the slowdown in the economic  growth rate and by restrictions on the imports of foreign goods and the purchase of dollars. (These measures are designed to protect the Argentine peso from further devaluation.)  These restrictions have upended the Argentine habit of putting savings and setting real estate prices in dollars. Social media-driven protests blossomed.  The fragmented opposition finally came together and rallied around two political caucuses (one center-left, the other center-right).  This is a rare challenge to the late President Nestor Kirchner’s desire to see Argentine politics dominated by two large, ideologically opposed alliances.

The fact that the middle class rose up in protest is something new to Argentina where such events historically happen only after the worst national disasters. The opposition was galvanized; they heeded the people’s call for unity.  They are now joining together in ways that would have been unimaginable only a few months ago. People like Elisa Carrió, a rather boring centrist and former presidential candidate, is joining forces with the leftist filmmaker Pino Solanas and the local Socialist party for the all-important Buenos Aires congressional seat.  This leaves Cristina’s preferred candidate, Daniel Filmus, struggling. The Solanas-Carrio ticket for senate is competing with two more candidates who have pledged to combine forces in what is perceived a solid left-of-the-center threat to Cristina’s congressional majority.

Not to be undone, the center-right is also coming together, but with considerably more turmoil. Leading the polls in the early rounds is the charismatic mayor of Tigre, Sergio Massa.  He kept his strategy closely-guarded, deciding late in the game to run without a partner in the senatorial race–he has also set his sights on the presidential race in 2015. Cristina Kirchner made a tepid attempt to bring Massa onto her own ticket but so did some of the better-funded and more powerful right-of-the-center candidates. So far, Massa has left his options open for the future. His performance in this election will determine his place at the table in the conservative caucus.  The situation in the interior of the country presents an even bleaker picture for the incumbent pro-Kirschner government with at least three of the four largest provinces now slipping away.

Whatever happens in the elections, one thing is certain: Cristina Kirchner’s once-mighty coalition will be left struggling with its identity and its future prospects. With no heir apparent in sight (Vice-president Amado Boudou is facing charges of corruption. Nestor’s sister Alicia is perceived as weak. Cristina’s politically irrelevant son Maximo is mockingly called “Minimo”) and with the prospects of modifying the Constitution to allow her to run for a third term  dead, the FPV is suddenly facing what could mark the beginning of their end. After all, a Victory Front without any significant victories will drift into irrelevance.

But it would be a mistake to count out Cristina before the ballots are in. Time and again, she has been able to navigate the difficulties of Argentine politics, in part because she created the political difficulties herself.

Her inner circle is already making plans for the day after she leaves office. If she is dethroned, most of her costly and popular policies will persist.   This includes universal child subsidies, investments in technological research, and increased salaries.

 

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