President Alberto Fernandez’s response to the surging Covid-19 case count has aggravated tensions between his administration and the city of Buenos Aires, whose mayor, Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, is the most prominent opposition figure in public office – and the most popular politician in the country. The crux of the matter is Fernandez’s order to suspend in-person schooling in the capital, which Rodriguez Larreta opposes with the evidence-based argument that transmission in schools is low. Not only has this triggered a messy jurisdictional battle between different courts over the validity of Fernandez’s decree, but it has set off protests by parents in favor of schools remaining open and strikes by teaching unions that back the suspension of classes. Electoral considerations make the risk of a persistently disjointed, politicized approach to the pandemic very real, which in turn risks prolonging the twin health and economic crises.
Vaccines = votes
The government is clearly struggling. The plan at the beginning of the year was to make a big push on the vaccine rollout, which would facilitate a loosening of restrictions alongside tangible economic reactivation in time for the August primaries and October mid-terms. The vaccine rollout has instead advanced intermittently, partly because procurement was sub-optimal (no deal with Pfizer and only minimal use of the COVAX facility). The “VIP vaccines” scandal also tarnished the government. The slower-than-expected vaccine rollout has had knock-on effects on the plan to get the economy moving again. Instead, Fernandez has had to reimpose unpopular restrictions – at a time when schooling was only just recovering from 2020’s lengthy closures; inflation is rising; the poverty rate has risen to 42%; and public opinion is seemingly more inclined to blame the current government rather than former president Mauricio Macri (2015-2019) for the economic crisis.
Polarize and pressurize
The government’s response has been to play up its vaccine procurement capacity, with the news that the Sputnik V vaccine – on which Argentina is heavily dependent – could be produced locally as soon as June. Otherwise, the government has fallen back on political scheming to mask its improvising, flip-flopping, and general disorganization. Kirchneristas are clearly preparing to hold Rodriguez Larreta responsible for any significant worsening of the health situation, while portraying the opposition as Covid-19 deniers. While previously Kirchneristas concentrated their attacks on more hawkish and divisive opposition figures, including Macri himself, rather than on the more moderate Rodriguez Larreta, a recent poll measuring the mayor’s popularity against that of Buenos Aires provincial Governor Axel Kicillof may have changed this calculation. Rodriguez Larreta is apparently more popular than Kicillof in most major provinces, including Buenos Aires province itself.
A Supreme Court ruling in the coming days should settle the immediate crisis over schooling. If the Court sides with Rodriguez Larreta, it would represent a humiliation for Fernandez, and no doubt set off a fresh attack from VP Cristina Fernandez against the Supreme Court and wider judiciary. If the Court rules that schools should close, it could amount to a pyrrhic victory for Fernandez given that, according to one credible pollster, one third of his supporters oppose class suspensions, and that despite promises that the measure would be for a fortnight only, it could easily end up being extended if coronavirus cases keep increasing and the immunization program continues to stutter.