June 18, 2013
Justice for all
Order! The election year has started. March 1 is always the day ordinary sessions open in Congress. The political year is now in full swing. President Christina Fernández de Kirchner addressed Congress on Friday. But Congress had been working already this year.
Fernández de Kirchner had called extraordinary sessions in February for Congress to debate the memorandum of understanding signed with Iran to jointly investigate the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish centre in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. The Lower House of Congress approved the agreement with Iran (critics call it a “pact”) 131-113 before dawn on Thursday, after a long debate.
The electricity of that debate was still in the air when the President spoke in the same chamber to the gathered bicameral assembly on Friday.
Congress was busy already even the doors for ordinary business were flung open. Lower House committees, controlled by the ruling Victory Front, had cleared the Iran treaty bill for debate after a foul-tempered gathering attended by Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman on Tuesday.
The agreement with Iran had been approved by the Senate 39-31 on February 21. The extraordinary sessions to debate the deal with Iran come in what is likely to be an extraordinary election year.
Friday’s opening of ordinary sessions came with much pomp. A crowd of pro-government activists rallied outside. Before the President spoke a young violinist played the national anthem. The young man, government officials said, had at one point written to the late president Néstor Kirchner asking for a violin to practice. Kirchner sent the lad his violin. Now here was the boy skillfully executing the national anthem. After that scene charged with Kirchnerite symbolism, the President got down to the business of announcing what she expects for Congress this year.
The memorandum of understanding with Iran, to call it by its full name, has been condemned by the Jewish community leaders of the DAIA association and AMIA. Many who lost loved ones in the attack have also condemned it, telling lawmakers that it is a ploy by the Argentine state to skirt responsibility and bring the investigation to a full stop. But some relatives of the AMIA attack victims have also spoken out in favour of the agreement, which will have Argentine and Iran officials questioning Iranian suspects in Tehran. One such relative told that Lower House hearing on Tuesday that he believed the accord could be a “light at the end of the tunnel.”
The accord with Iran was still on the President’s menu when she delivered her state-of-the-nation speech on Friday. Given the criticism, the President could have avoided any reference to the issue. Instead, she staunchly defended the agreement saying that it opened the chance for progress to be made in the case after so many years. Most of the week had been dominated by the Iran debate in the Lower House.
Tuesday’s hearing ahead of the floor session the next day was heated. Laura Alonso, a lawmaker for the centre-right party PRO, at one point on Tuesday jumped to her feet with a look of fury on her face and started shouting abuse at the Kirchnerite lawmaker Andrés Larroque, accusing him of calling her a “tramp.” Timerman also blew his top when Federico Pinedo, another PRO lawmaker, implied that the accord was signed on International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the demand of Iran.
Deputy Agustín Rossi, the leader of the Kirchnerite caucus, on Tuesday fired accusations at the opposition. Rossi said that Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, PRO’s leader, had named a chief of the Metropolitan Police accused of trying to sabotage the AMIA case investigation. The Radical administration in the eighties, Rossi said, had been willing to do nuclear and military business with Tehran.
Rossi’s Victory Front caucus had to scramble on Wednesday to garner the required quorum of 129 lawmakers for the crucial session to open. Two Victory Front lawmakers, currently serving as provincial officials in Tucumán and Chubut, were told to momentarily step down to take their seats in the Lower House of the debate.
At least three Victory Front lawmakers (including two Peronist trade union leaders loyal to teamster Hugo Moyano) had announced that they would not attend the debate. But the 131-113 approval of the memorandum of understanding with Iran at the end of the night shows that Fernández de Kirchner’s Victory Front, after scoring a landslide win in 2011, is in control of Congress.
The fact that the President controls Congress should escape no one. It is what made Friday’s speech interesting. The defence of the agreement with Iran was predictable. The President also dedicated much of her speech to hailing the Kirchnerite decade, which started when her late husband took office in May, 2003. Fernández de Kirchner also underlined that Argentina’s return to democracy will turn 30 years in 2013 and congratulated all political parties for the achievement.
Fernández de Kirchner had a lot to say on Friday, and took a long time saying it. Her speech went on for over three and a half hours.
Yet the President was more in control of her words than during last year’s state-of-the-nation speech when she had fiercely criticized teachers for going on strike to demand better pay.
Technically, Fernández de Kirchner was supposed to report to Congress on the current situation. But much of CFK’s address was an ode to the Kirchnerite decade. A decade, she said, that the Argentine people had “won.”
So the President stood by a memo signed with Iran and showered praise on the “won decade?” Where’s the news? The real news came at the end of Fernández de Kirchner’s speech when she announced that the Executive will send to Congress a set of bills to promote the sweeping reform of the court system.
A number of key cases, including the national government’s conflict with the media group Clarín over the Broadcasting Law, are still the subject of bitter court battles. Clarín has so far managed to block the Broadcasting Law, which forces it to divest, by filing a series of injunctions while the case moves slowly all the way up to the Supreme Court.
The Kirchnerite era so lauded by the President started in 2003 when Kirchner overhauled the then unpopular Supreme Court, criticized for its lack of independence from the Executive and corporations in the neoliberal nineties, to introduce a new screening process that named new justices.
The President on Friday only had nice things to say about the Kirchnerite decade. But ten years on, Fernandez de Kirchner is clearly exasperated with the court system in general and more specifically by the Supreme Court her husband helped to select.
The President fired off the set of reforms she expects Congress to approve this year. She said that 13 members of the Magistrates Council, the justice system’s disciplinary body, will have to be elected through the direct vote of the people. Injunctions, like the one used by Clarín to freeze the Broadcasting Law, will be regulated, the President said.
She also announced that three new cassation courts to deal with labour, commercial and civil cases should be established by law. (The current Cassation Court deals with criminal cases.)
Friday’s bicameral session was a grand gathering broadcast nationally by state television. In the audience was Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti. The state-run cameras showed an ashen-faced Lorenzetti as the President rattled off her wish-list of justice system reforms.
Lorenzetti had delivered a speech of his own to open the judicial year on Tuesday. His basic message to the President on Tuesday was: we don’t tell the Executive what to do, our job is for everybody to do what the Constitution says.
The President’s thirst for the “democratic” reform of the court system, which critics say is really a ploy to limit the clout of the independent Supreme Court, has its supporters in judicial circles. General Prosecutor Alejandra Gils Carbó has called Argentina’s justice system a “dark and illegitimate place” too eager to cater for the whims of private corporations.
Fernández de Kirchner’s reform plan also includes wider access to the sworn statement of assets of public administration officials.
Many opposition leaders say the drastic reform tabled by the President is unacceptable. "We will fight to defend the justice system and I hope that this time the people will accompany us because without justice there is neither life nor liberty," said the centrist lawmaker Elisa Carrió, who did not attend the session. Hermes Binner, a Socialist Party leader, said yesterday that Fernández de Kirchner is trying to buy herself a one-way ticket to autarchy by altering the justice system.
Fernández de Kirchner said on Friday that she was not using the reform to amend the Constitution. "No constitution is going to be reformed, you can all relax," she said. But for how long can the opposition relax? The President has ruled out reforming the Constitution to change the justice system now. But what if the Victory Front performs well in the midterm elections scheduled for October?
The national government has in the past vowed never to pay the so-called “vulture funds” seeking to collect on defaulted Argentine bonds without accepting the terms of the 2005 and 2010 swaps. But the President on Friday told Congress that she is willing to pay the “vultures” exactly what the 93 percent of bondholders who did accept the restructuring are getting. The US court hearing the case on Friday said that Argentina had until March 29 to put in writing exactly what it is prepared to offer the “vultures.”
The President’s speech packed punches. Carrió and other leaders are putting up a fight. Word of an anti-government demonstration called for April 18 spread quickly over the Internet. Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Buenos Aires and other major cities on November 8 to protest against Fernández de Kirchner. Expect more such demonstrations to take place this year.