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September 10, 2020

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ARGENTINA: Political problems mount for government

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 5 mins)
  • The government is struggling under the weight of multiple crises.
  • President Alberto Fernandez’s political weakness and his VP’s own agenda and power base will continue to complicate governability.
  • Policy incoherence is set to continue amid the economic crisis and signs of increasing social restlessness.

President Alberto Fernandez is facing a crisis of authority amid strikes by police in the conurbano urban sprawl around the capital, together with a surge in land grabs mainly on the outer edges of the Buenos Aires conurbation. As is so often the case with this administration, where solutions are offered, they tend to generate problematic ripple effects. These include a deepening of political polarization, which is in all certainty intentional and indicative of the extent to which Fernandez remains hemmed in by his powerful VP, Cristina Fernandez (CFK), who pursues her own agenda. In this context, and against a backdrop of a steadily worsening Covid-19 outbreak and a dire economic situation, policy will continue to slalom unpredictably.

Police problems

Members of the Bonaerense force under the control of the Buenos Aires provincial governor Axel Kicillof have since the beginning of this week been protesting over their low wages and poor working conditions (e.g. their medical insurance does not cover the cost of Covid-19 testing, though personnel are highly exposed to the virus). The situation reached a tipping point yesterday, 9 September, when armed officers protested outside the Quinta de Olivos presidential residence.

Quite apart from the disturbing connotations of this show of force, the protests expose the level of discontent among one set of public employees that almost certainly exists to the same degree in other areas. It also shows how Kicillof and his brash provincial security minister, Sergio Berni, have been caught off guard. However, both Kicillof and Berni are firm CFK favorites, which Fernandez’s solution to the crisis – announced yesterday – serves to demonstrate.

Fernandez’s remedy is to take funds (reportedly as much as ARS 45bn in 2021) assigned to Buenos Aires (city) under the revenue-sharing and distribution system between central government and the provinces and redirect them to Buenos Aires province. The city’s mayor is the leading opposition figure Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, while Kicillof governs the province. The re-allocation does not come entirely out of the blue and does have some merit, but all the same, it has clear political overtones. The epicenter of the police protests is CFK’s electoral bastion, which she cannot afford to see slide into turmoil in the run-up to next year’s mid-terms. By the same token, CFK wants to weaken Rodriguez Larreta (whose approval ratings have remained resilient as Fernandez’s have dropped), while protecting her putative “genuine” heir, Kicillof. Another possible motive for CFK is to cleave relations between Fernandez and Larreta to prevent a recovery of the political center-ground.

Land grabs

In parallel, recent weeks have seen an intensification of land grabs and squatting on the outer fringes of the Buenos Aires conurbation (in Kicillof’s jurisdiction). The squatters are out of work and/or cannot afford normal rents amid the economic crisis – an indication of the Covid-19 lockdown’s damage to an already-weak social fabric, another sign of which is that close to 25% of the population now receive some form of government food assistance, according to the Social Development Ministry. Once again, the situation puts Kicillof in a difficult position, especially as the issue pits factions of the Peronist movement against each other: a law and order vote (that Berni speaks to) versus the more radical left and social movements which oppose evictions.

Covid-19

The backdrop to these problems is the worsening health situation. The number of Covid-19 cases has more than doubled over the past month, hitting 512,293 in yesterday’s official report. Buenos Aires province and city together account for around 61% of new cases – still high but down from previous levels as the virus steadily advances elsewhere, with the main emerging hotspots in Santa Fe, Mendoza, and Cordoba.

With no curve-flattening in prospect, the government does not appear to have much of a plan other than prolonged lockdowns where outbreaks occur (and deepening political polarization). The longer restrictions are in place, the greater the risk that economic damage becomes permanent, with all the attendant social problems – from land grabs to large parts of the population becoming reliant on aid from a cash-strapped state to further protests – that would ensue. It may be anecdotal but there were chants against the entire political class (“que se vayan todos” – “throw them all out”) heard in spontaneous protests against new local Covid-19 restrictions in Rosario (Santa Fe province) on 29 August.

CFK

That a government facing such a daunting set of challenges is divided, and in which power is structured so unconventionally, clearly complicates the political outlook. These factors explain other policy moves, including the price freeze affecting the internet and telecoms sector, which is now also subject to new government controls; the bill to reform the judiciary to shield CFK from corruption cases (amid other judicial wrangles); and the initiative to introduce a one-off wealth tax of dubious utility; not to mention the Vicentin expropriation debacle. None of these measures inspire confidence that Fernandez will be able to chart a consistent course towards the fabled “normal country” status.

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