May 19, 2013
After the ‘8N’ bashing
Are politicians in general behaving differently?
Surely you still remember the massive anti-government protest of November 8? Well now everything that comes after it will be judged in the light of that show of saucepan-bashing, flag-waving and placard -brandishing against the administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The bashers of saucepans are also the bashers of the government. If you ask them, the protest will have huge gravitation on events to come all the way up to the midterm elections, scheduled for October of next year. Events can still prove the demonstrators wrong; time often alters things. But the protest, the massive turnout at the Obelisk in Buenos Aires, is still fresh in the minds of everybody.
The nation’s top politicos, be they of the ruling party or the opposition, now have that protest in mind when they make a move. The protest was mainly about criticizing the government. But polls also show that the protesters are not at all happy with the way the opposition handles itself, meaning that all eyes were not only on the President. Opposition leaders like Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, the head of the centre-right party PRO, are also being watched.
The November 8 protest was living hell for the national government. But Macri’s Buenos Aires City is no picnic. Rainstorms a week ago flooded most of Belgrano, an upmarket neighbourhood. Many asked themselves why Macri had not carried out the works to deal with the floods. Macri’s reply (before November 8) was that his municipal administration needs the approval of the national government to issue debt to carry out the works. Is that a good enough explanation? You answer that. But something out of the ordinary happened on Tuesday.
Macri called a press conference and practically out of nowhere, after engaging in a year-long argument with the CFK administration, announced that his government will take charge of BA’s subway as from January 1. Can this announcement be linked directly to the November 8 protest? Good question. But maybe politicians in general are now getting the message that the brat-like kind of arguing, in which they engage almost endlessly to jockey for political positions, has fed many people up.
Macri last year signed a preliminary agreement with the national government to take over the subway. The mayor jacked up fares from 1.25 pesos to 2.50 almost immediately. But then the talks broke down, after a train that is not part of the subway crashed in Buenos Aires killing 51 people, with Macri complaining bitterly that the national government was refraining from investing on the subways. More arguing followed.
Yet now Macri is reaching out to the opposition in the city, including the Kirchnerites, because PRO does not control the Legislature and if the subway transfer bill is to be approved it needs the backing of all other parties. Macri has publicly ruled out that he has engaged in secret negotiations with the national government. But something is going on. Recently PRO and the Kirchnerites voted together in the BA Legislature a set of laws that allow the municipal government to issue debt and the CFK administration to build housing on railway land here in Buenos Aires. The protesters of November 8 might think that all politicians, especially Fernández de Kirchner, are useless, but the system needs politicians. There’s a contradiction staring the saucepan-bashers straight in the face.
All right, you are correct in underlining that November 8 was not about Macri. It was more about Fernández de Kirchner’s popularity plummeting. So what is the President up to? Fernández de Kirchner is trying to ride the storm by answering back at her critics. The President has made no direct reference about “8N.” But many of her comments are laced with criticism for the protesters.
On Monday, the President complained about those who want to return to “ultraconservative regimes.” Fernández de Kirchner has not been saying nice things about the middle class in general. Yet by the end of the week she was admitting that the hard-working middle class has merit.
The President, like most presidents out there, does a lot of talking. But Fernández de Kirchner played a very concrete feelgood card ahead of the holiday season on Wednesday. Fernández de Kirchner, speaking from Government House during a national broadcast, announced that the 13th-month salary bonus would not be charged income tax in December (for salaries up to 25,000 pesos a month gross). In a nutshell: the decision means that workers will pocket on average 1,000 pesos extra next month just in time for Christmas. The President made the announcement ahead of a national strike called for Tuesday by the anti-government branches of the CGT (headed by truck driver Hugo Moyano) and the CTA (headed by state worker Pablo Micheli).
Fernández de Kirchner was reacting both to November 8 and to the strike of November 20 by making the feelgood announcement. The President also said that she will open talks with the pro-government CGT (headed by metal worker Antonio Caló) to discuss changes to the income tax threshold next year. Moyano has complained loudly that the income tax thresholds have not been updated since 2011 to keep up with inflation. Fernández de Kirchner said on Wednesday that the talks with the pro-government CGT, which includes the nation’s largest industrial unions, about income tax will be held in the context of next year’s collective wage-bargaining. Salary talks are held annually in Argentina and pay agreements (roughly awarding increases of about 25 percent last year) have mostly kept up with inflation as reported by independent economists. Next year, the President could aim to offer more income tax breaks (long overdue according to the trade unions) in exchange for less of a nominal salary increase.
Moyano scoffed at Fernández de Kirchner’s announcement. The anti-government CGT-CTA walkout will have limited clout because many major unions still support the national government. The pro-government unions will now get to sit down for talks with the President in person.
The income tax announcement shows that the President can still throw money at the election year despite currently not performing well in polls (and the economy practically not growing in September according to official data). Federal Planning Minister Julio De Vido has also anticipated that 2013 will be the year in which the national government promotes growth. The President threw one big party to win the presidential elections with 54 percent of the vote in 2011. Expect her to try to pull off the same stunt in 2013.
The protests of November 8 looked massive. But the Kirchnerite Victory Front, a coalition that includes the Peronist party (the nation’s largest political machine by far), still controls Congress. Those who walked to the Obelisk fuming on November 8 made it patently clear, in the placards they carried and the slogans that they chanted, that the one thing they do not want is for Fernández de Kirchner to reform the Constitution to seek a third consecutive term in office.
At this point in time, after “8N,” the President is not in a position to make a move to reform the Constitution. Congress is controlled by the Kirchnerites. But a majority of two-thirds in both chambers of Congress is required to change the Constitution. The Victory Front does not have that kind of majority. But the Victory Front does have a majority to approve key laws at will.
On Wednesday, the Lower House of Congress passed into law the so-called per saltum bill, a legal regulation that will allow the Supreme Court to rule on cases of “institutional importance” even when lower courts have not finished dealing with them. Critics say that the reform is designed to allow the national government to press for a fast Supreme Court ruling on a lawsuit filed against the Broadcasting Law by the media group Clarín, which alleges that an article forcing it to divest is unconstitutional because it includes companies it owns since before the law was approved.
The Supreme Court has already said that an injunction filed by Grupo Clarín freezing the law will expire on December 7. Martín Sabbatella, the head of the AFSCA media watchdog, has announced that on December 7 Grupo Clarín and all other companies will have to drop licenses to meet the law’s regulations. Sabbatella, speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, said that Grupo Clarín, which has refused to present its plan to divest according to the law, will be forced to sell off companies if it does not comply voluntarily.
December, like so many times before in volatile Argentina, will be a turbulent month because the showdown with Grupo Clarín will happen. Will Sabbatella send in the police to rid Grupo Clarín of the companies it does not want to sell? It looks like the conflict will play out in a traumatic way.
The Supreme Court will be in a tight spot because the demonstrators of November 8 demanded “courage” from judges who, according to the critics, are under pressure from the national government. But the Supreme Court will also be under fire from government supporters if it chooses to rule in favour of Grupo Clarín that is accused by critics of having amassed too much media power and of using it maliciously to wrestle political favours from administrations.
The opposition claims the President has the re-election card up her sleeve. But Fernández de Kirchner has made no official comment about such a bid. All presidents in Argentina must keep the re-election option latent in a bid not to turn into a lame duck too soon in a country notorious for quickly losing its institutional patience. Fernández de Kirchner’s engineering abilities will be tested next year when she will have to negotiate congressional slates with Peronist bigwigs, including Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli and Córdoba Governor José Manuel de la Sota. De la Sota on Thursday, with the President’s Industry Minister Débora Giorgi in the audience at a car factory in Córdoba, complained about income tax and what he called the national government’s lack of will to “dialogue” with others. Giorgi walked out in disgust. Fernández de Kirchner and De la Sota technically belong to the same party. But come the midterm elections it looks like they will be on different sides.