This week, Argentina has a new cabinet after Vice-President Cristina Fernandez (CFK) flexed her political muscles in the wake of the 12 September mid-term primaries. In Brazil, a report from the Senate inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic will be released. Chile sees its first presidential debate two months ahead of the first-round vote, while the constituent assembly tries to move beyond messy procedural arguments. Venezuela‘s talks to overcome its protracted crisis are set to resume amid intense political feedback. Finally, Colombia‘s presidential campaign has a long way to go but Gustavo Petro is making an early bid to overcome his rejection ratings.
President Alberto Fernandez will swear in his new-look cabinet today, 20 September, after a bruising week that stretched the governing Front for All (FdT) coalition to breaking point. Many new ministers are Kirchnerista veterans, some of them controversial figures whose ability to help the FdT win back disenchanted voters in the November mid-terms is questionable. Juan Manzur, the Tucuman provincial governor, comes in as the new cabinet chief as per Vice-President Cristina Fernandez (CFK)’s wishes. Finance Minister Martin Guzman stays on for now, though his modest fiscal consolidation efforts are likely to slow following pressure from CFK to engineer a boost in consumer confidence; expect some announcements, such as a minimum wage hike and pension top-ups, during the course of this week.
President Jair Bolsonaro will deliver a speech on 21 September at the UN General Assembly where he intends to defend his controversial view on the need to limit landownership by indigenous populations to lands occupied before October 1988. On 23 September, the rapporteur of the senate inquiry into the handling of the pandemic will present his final report. It will include a request for Bolsonaro’s indictment for prevarication in relation to irregularities in the purchase of Covid-19 vaccines, and various other crimes allegedly committed by his administration. The House plenary may also vote on a favorable report by the constitution and justice committee (CCJ) for a constitutional amendment that would allow the government to partition the payment of judicial claims due in 2022, without which the government would surpass the official spending ceiling.
The first presidential candidates’ debate takes place on 22 September. Recent polls show that levels of indecision remain high ahead of the first-round vote scheduled for 21 November. Gabriel Boric of the radical left Apruebo Dignidad coalition is leading the polls, with Sebastian Sichel of the center- right Chile Vamos (CV) coalition, which has rebranded itself as Chile Podemos Mas (CPM or CP+), is in second place. Yasna Provoste of the center- left coalition, now known as New Social Pact (NPS), and the ultra-conservative Jose Antonio Kast (Republicans) are tied in third place. The most recent Cadem survey carried out last week has Boric on 25% and Sichel on 17%, with 27% of voters undecided.
Separately, the constituent assembly should have settled all its internal rules by the end of the week, two and a half months since its inaugural session. The rule that all constitutional articles require two-thirds approval – a feature designed to ensure compromise and consensus – remains controversial as left-wing and anti-status quo groups continue to push for this threshold to be lowered. Moderates from across the spectrum have engineered an agreement to allow the two-thirds rule to be validated by a simple majority vote this week. Assuming that passes, it could create a precedent for the Communist Party (PC) and others to argue for flexibility in the application of the rule. Public approval of the constituent assembly has been dropping amid these sometimes bitterly fought arguments.
Regime-opposition talks are set to resume in Mexico City on 24 September. The government announced last week an addition to its delegation: none other than Alex Saab, a key financier and fixer for President Nicolas Maduro. Quite how Saab’s involvement is meant to work – he is under arrest in Cape Verde awaiting extradition to the US – is unclear, though the maneuver will vindicate those who say the talks are a dead end. In parallel, Maduro’s lead negotiator Jorge Rodriguez has accused the opposition of trying to sabotage the talks after Colombia’s regulator intervened in the Venezuelan-owned fertilizer producer Monomeros amid the company’s financial difficulties. A UN independent fact-finding mission’s report last week that the justice system has played a significant role in state repression has added to the tensions.
The leftist presidential candidate Gustavo Petro is trying to project a more moderate image. In an interview published yesterday, 19 September, Petro described his political project as “democratic capitalism” and said this would be his final presidential campaign. In what is likely to have been a coordinated move, elements in the Green party have also proposed joining Petro’s Historic Pact alliance with the center-left Coalition of Hope and holding a primary vote in March 2022 ahead of the May first-round election. The Coalition of Hope’s most potent possible candidate is the former Antioquia governor Sergio Fajardo, who was narrowly squeezed out of the 2018 presidential run-off vote by Petro; the two have been unswerving foes ever since. Whether Fajardo and his allies would agree to such a proposal seems unlikely. What the proposal signals is that – in a fragmented field – alliances will be essential for victory.