June 18, 2013
Night of the casseroles
Thursday’s anti-Kirchnerite protest was big and noisy,
but what exactly will it end up meaning?
There’s many ways to make a noise. You can clap your hands. You can set off fireworks. You can blow raspberries. And then you can put spoon to saucepan and start making a clunky bashing sound. What kind of noise did you hear ringing out through the streets of Buenos Aires on Thursday night? It was not the sound of appreciative applause. It was the sound of saucepan bashing, yes. Thousands took to the streets and marched to Plaza de Mayo to protest against President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the centre-left Peronist who won re-election last year with 54 percent of the vote.
What is it the protesters don’t like? Ask them and they will rattle off a list of things. Inflation is too high and is underreported by INDEC, the state-run statistics bureau. The critics feel that crime is growing. They also don’t like the strict currency exchange controls that went up late last year in a bid to stop capital flight, and the draining of the Central Bank’s dollar reserves. Fernández de Kirchner, the critics say, also has a veiled plan, which she has yet to declare in public, to reform the Constitution in order to seek a third consecutive term in office when her mandate ends in 2015.
Saucepan bashing demonstrations took place four times before this year. But the protests had not been as massive as Thursday’s. Protests also took place in the cities of Córdoba, Rosario, Salta and others. In Buenos Aires City, thousands thronged to Plaza de Mayo from the upmarket neighbourhoods of the north. But many others also gathered in the neighbourhoods of Caballito and Flores. One reader said in a letter to the Herald that she believed about 30,000 people had gathered outside the President’s official residence in Olivos, a suburb in northern Greater Buenos Aires, on Thursday.
When an even bigger crowd had gathered in Plaza de Mayo one thing was clear: the protest could not be ignored. It was news. That’s when a whole new ballgame started.
The pro-government media tried to brush the protest under the carpet. The opposition media, especially Grupo Clarín’s cable television news channel Todo Noticias (TN), tried to magnify the impact of the protest. But TN had a problem. The demonstration, called through the social media networks on the Internet and not organized by any given opposition party, was supposed to be all about tolerance and consensus. Yet at times the crowd chanted abuse at the President, wishing she’d “go with Néstor” Kirchner, her late husband and predecessor who died suddenly of a heart attack in 2010.
The sound of pots banging is always significant because that was the music ringing during the financial crisis of late 2001, when Argentina’s economy imploded and millions were plunged into poverty after the government announced the biggest sovereign debt default in history.
Only time will tell what the real significance of Thursday’s protest really is. The pretty massive protest also chimed with the opposition demonstrations of 2008 during the CFK administration’s fierce standoff over soybean export duty increases with the farmers. The farmers, aiming to stop the approval of a bill in Congress, headed massive demonstrations against Fernández de Kirchner. The bill was finally shot down in July of 2008 when then vice-president Julio Cobos, a Radical who had joined forced with the Kirchners for the elections of 2007 and is now back in the opposition, cast the decisive tie-breaking vote in the Senate against CFK’s bill.
The President’s popularity, by the time the farmers (against all odds) had won the standoff, had hit rock bottom. Polls showed her popularity then stood at 25 percent — at most.
A year later Kirchner, running for Congress in the Peronist bastion of Buenos Aires province, lost the midterm elections against a centre-right ticket headed by Francisco De Narváez. So come 2011 the Kirchners lost the presidential elections, right? No. That’s why reading some meaning into Thursday’s demonstration is so difficult.
Kirchner’s funeral in 2010 was attended by thousands and it prompted a wave of sympathy for Fernández de Kirchner. CFK was handsomely re-elected last year.
It’s as if there’s two Argentinas. One Argentina is most certainly now furious. On Thursday night (tasteless slogans aside) the demonstrators carried signs saying they don’t want Argentina to turn into another Cuba or Venezuela. But then there’s the Argentina that has so far supported Fernández de Kirchner.
A recent poll in the conservative daily La Nación showed that the President’s government has at the moment an approval rating of 51 percent. The President on Thursday night, while the marches took place, was attending to business in the province of San Juan. She made no direct reference to the night’s protest. But the President said that nothing was going to “make her nervous.” When a group of young supporters urged the President to run for re-election, she told them that she will take the place that is assigned to her. The Kirchnerite supporters in San Juan then demanded the right to vote at 16 (the current voting age is 18).
The Victory Front, the President’s ruling coalition, is sponsoring a bill in Congress to lower the voting age from 18 to 16. Initially, the Victory Front had said that voting would not be compulsory between the ages of 16-18. But Senator Miguel Angel Pichetto, the leader of the Victory Front, opined on Wednesday that voting should be “compulsory” from the age of 16.
The vote at 16 bill has anguished the opposition. The centre-left coalition FAP, headed by the opposition Socialist Party, is mostly in favour. But the centre-right party PRO, headed by Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, has yet to clearly make up its mind. Critics fear that a change in the voting age will eventually lead to a constitutional amendment, aimed at allowing Fernández de Kirchner to run again.
A majority of two-thirds is required in both chambers of Congress to reform the Constitution. It is a majority that the Victory Front does not have. But a good performance by the Victory Front in next year’s midterm elections could leave the Kirchnerites close to such a majority and force the issue. The opposition is not taking any chances and all opposition leaders have declared that they are well aware that the midterm elections of 2013 will be a “showdown” about “re-reelection.”
Also opposing the potential reform of the Constitution is truck driver Hugo Moyano, once a key strategic ally of the Kirchners who now heads an anti-government faction of the General Labour Confederation (CGT). Moyano, who does not have the support of the large industrial unions that still back CFK, on Tuesday met with leaders of the Radical Civic Union (UCR). Moyano vowed to fight for “freedom” and has said that “re-reelection” will be the issue in 2013.
Thursday’s widespread anti-CFK protests were not organized by the opposition parties. Indeed, polls show that much of the public is not happy with the way in which the splintered opposition, that fumbled the presidential vote in 2011, is performing. But prominent opposition lawmakers attended Thursday’s demonstration in Plaza de Mayo, including the centre-right lawmaker Patricia Bullrich. Bullrich is now a member of a so-called political action group, GAPU, that also includes dissident Peronists and Radicals. Ultimately GAPU could end up endorsing Macri’s presidential nomination in 2015.
When a lot of people together start to make a deafening din with their kitchen utensils you have to take note. Argentina, especially since the currency exchange controls have gotten stricter, is now in a state of agitation. A big protest was held outside Congress on Wednesday (the day before the saucepan bashing) by bank clerks opposing a Kirchnerite bill to transfer legal fees from Banco Ciudad (the city’s municipal bank) to Banco Nación. The Senate approved the bill, which was fiercely opposed by the Macri administration, on Wednesday night 38-25. Macri has said that he will seek a court injunction to freeze the decision, claiming it is unconstitutional because it clashes with Buenos Aires City’s autonomy.
Yet for all the din, the economic and the political system that keeps Fernández de Kirchner in office has clearly not imploded just yet. The President on Wednesday announced a 25.9 percent increase in child benefits (from 270 pesos to 340 pesos). Effectively, the national government by granting such an increase is acknowledging an inflation rate of at least 25 percent.
Claims about democratic foul play are also fuzzy. Cabinet Chief Juan Manuel Abal Medina on Friday scoffed at the protest. The protesters, he said, are from the rich parts of town where the President does not have much support. The bashers of saucepans, according to Abal Medina, are more worried about events in Miami (where according to the New York Times Argentines are buying property) than in provinces like San Juan. And on the argument goes.
The demonstrators on Thursday night chanted that the “Kirchnerite dictatorship” must end. But what kind of a dictatorship allows rowdy street demonstrations without sending in the tanks?
The conflict is far more subtle. Fernández de Kirchner has announced that on December 7, when an injunction filed by Grupo Clarín expires, the Media Law approved on 2009 will be in full effect. The law will effectively force some media companies, including Grupo Clarín, to downsize to meet new regulations. Supporters of the law say that Grupo Clarín has been allowed to amass too much power and manipulates the news to wrestle favours from politicians when they are in office. Critics of the law say that it has been designed by the Kirchnerite administration to gag the independent press.
It looks like everyone is prone to losing their balance. Has Argentina lost its balance? Who knows. But you know what happens often when you lose your balance. You fall.