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August 19, 2020

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ARGENTINA: Public disaffection and political weakness

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 3 mins)

Major protests that took place across the country on 17 August indicate growing public restlessness on a variety of issues. The government has little to offer in response. Nor does the opposition, whose divisions have been underscored. With the Covid-19 situation still highly problematic, and the government burdened by its own internal contradictions, politics is likely to remain unsettled.

Several issues motivated the largest protests to take place since President Alberto Fernandez took office last December. The government’s judicial reform proposal was the main trigger. Frustration with lengthy Covid-19 lockdown measures in place since March was the other driver. A second tier of grievances include concern about the state of the economy, combined with the absence of any economic roadmap out of the crisis, as well as unease about rising crime.

The judicial reform initiative has special significance because it is widely seen as a bid to dilute the power of powerful investigative judges and shield VP Cristina Fernandez (CFK) from prosecution in multiple corruption cases. Public dismay at such a blatant attempt to ensure impunity for CFK is considerable, especially when there is no public clamor for judicial reform and the twin health and economic crises represent much more urgent challenges. By extension, the reform unmasks how beholden Fernandez is to CFK and her own private agenda; for example, Fernandez’s opposition to expanding the Supreme Court is on record yet it is under consideration by a specially appointed expert advisory panel that includes CFK’s own lawyer.

Frustration with the lockdown reflects, not just its length, but its inconsistencies and the apparent lack of any strategy beyond continual extensions. Fernandez last week extended quarantine measures until at least 30 August – the eleventh extension since 20 March. However, new Covid-19 cases continue to rise, reaching 305,966 in the most recent count reported yesterday, 18 August. The time it takes for the caseload to double is slowing slightly but stabilization at high levels does not allow much scope for loosening of restrictions. Diverging local dynamics also explain public frustration; cases in the capital are declining, while Buenos Aires province continues to see increases, alongside new clusters beyond the country’s main population center.

All of this helps explain why Fernandez’s poll ratings have dipped since the early days of the lockdown in late March/early April, when his popularity soared. One poll shows Fernandez’s disapproval rating now edging ahead of his approval rating. Proceeding with the judicial reform will likely reinforce this trend; CFK wants Senate approval sealed next week. Even if the reform faces a far more uncertain horizon in the lower house, where the governing Front for All (FdeT) coalition lacks a majority, public dissatisfaction with Fernandez and his kowtowing to CFK is likely to persist, as it would even if the government is forced into another U-turn following the Vicentin expropriation debacle.

At the same time, the protests are not necessarily indicative of a resurgent opposition. Despite claims to the contrary, this was less of an opposition rally and more of an outpouring of public frustration that some in the opposition have tried to harness. The more moderate opposition, led by Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, has kept at arm’s length from the protests

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