December 11, 2013
Life in between elections
Has Argentina spawned too many political analysts? You bet. Oh, to go back in life and be something else. Possibly, even, a politico. There are so many doctors spinning their webs that it’s difficult to get a word in. The only difference is that this column is written in English with the hope of helping somebody to figure out the country’s politics in case they don’t command enough Spanish. You don’t speak any English? Well, hire yourself a translator then like those who don’t speak Spanish. But is there really any need? There are so many writers out there who, like hacks will be, are only in it for the kicks. So let’s get down to business then. Let the rambling commence to see if anything makes any sense.
You know by now that the ruling Victory Front (FpV) coalition lost the midterm primaries in Buenos Aires province on August 11. The FpV was also whacked in big districts like Santa Fe, Córdoba and Buenos Aires City. The FpV showed signs of life by winning in Entre Ríos and most northern provinces.
The big showdown in Buenos Aires province was won by Tigre Mayor Sergio Massa, a former Kirchnerite who now leads the Renewal Front that aims to strike the middleground while at the same time veering to the centre-right.
So what to make of this? Suddenly the midterm elections scheduled for October look very far away. The result is not likely to change. Why should it? And suddenly, the end of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s mandate in 2015 looks also distant.
Also concluding his mandate in 2015 is Buenos Aires province Governor Daniel Scioli, a Peronist who has cultivated a moderate style (call it centrist if you like) and who has refused to join forces with Massa and is still a top official of the FpV, a coalition which includes the Peronist party as its main member.
Scioli has decent popularity ratings and has declared that he plans to run in the presidential primaries that will presumably take place in 2015.
Scioli and Massa, if you will, are now rivals. But before that you need to get to 2015. There’s sill something very basic and fundamental now at stake in October.
Will the Victory Front continue to control the Lower House and the Upper House of Congress? Yes, if the result in October is the same as on August 11. No, if the ruling coalition, which (counting allies) won 30.9 percent of the vote nationwide on August 11, loses support in key places such as Neuquén and Buenos Aires City.
Essentially, when the votes are counted in October, what will mater is if Fernández de Kirchner has enough seats in Congress to withstand the political pressure that her critics will unleash if they emerge as winners.
Scioli has been fidgety and talkative since the votes were counted on the night of August 11.
On Monday, during an appearance on a cable television show, Scioli said that he was “worried” by the speculation about a turbulent transition, amid reports that a number of major opposition parties were intent on dethroning the Kirchnerite Lower House speaker if the FpV’s defeat is confirmed in October and the ruling coalition effectively loses control of Congress.
Scioli also said he was concerned about the widespread talk of altering many of the unorthodox Kirchnerite policies introduced since Néstor Kirchner, the late former president, first rose to power in 2003.
The governor, on addressing the Council of the Americas conference on Thursday in Buenos Aires, said that the CFK administration should “end in the best possible way” in 2015.
Massa was also a speaker at the Council of the Americas. The economy, said Massa, is stagnant and Argentina needs to woo investment to recover. Scioli and Massa were thus chirping two very different tunes. Argentina’s unorthodox economic policies, including not issuing foreign debt, should continue if you believe what Scioli is now saying.
Massa’s stance was what is usually referred to as market friendly. The FpV has hit a wall. Massa has hit Wall Street at a time when many voters are complaining about crime, inflation and currency exchange controls.
There is one complaint that no longer holds: that the CFK administration is somehow a “dictatorship.” Have you ever heard of a dictatorship that has lost two elections in the span of five years? It sounds a bit funny. Dictatorships don’t usually accept Senate votes and Supreme Court rulings either. Pending in Argentina is a Supreme Court ruling on the Media Law, sponsored by the FpV and approved by Congress in 2009.
Machination about dictatorships aside, it’s too soon to tell how Argentina’s political future will play out. When the Victory Front was thrashed in the midterm election in 2009 the Cabinet was reshuffled.
Kirchner stepped down as chairman of the Peronist party (also known by its acronym in Spanish: PJ) and left Scioli, his vice-president between 2003-2007 in charge. Kirchner returned to the helm of the Peronist party when the political situation improved for the Kirchnerites. Then in 2010 he died suddenly of a heart attack. That left Scioli formally in charge of the PJ once again with Fernández de Kirchner calling the real political shots.
Now this election year feels a bit like 2009. The one significant difference is that there were no compulsory nationwide primaries held in 2009 because the system, sponsored by the Victory Front, had yet to be approved.
Meaning that now everybody has to wait until October to see if the result on August 11, as can be expected, will be confirmed.
Dramatic things can happen. But a dramatic change in October is unlikely. What is also unlikely is that Fernández de Kirchner will give in to pressure to introduce more orthodox economic policies between now and the end of her mandate in 2015. The pressure from lobbies, presumably for example to weaken the peso, will be huge if the results are confirmed in October.
Yet the opposition has been in control of Congress before, after 2009, and then it fumbled a huge chance to change things according to its plans.
Fernández de Kirchner was red-elected with 54 percent of the vote in 2011. Argentina has a history of ruling parties being punished in midterm elections and this is what has happened again this month. Yet political life will go on after October. It is this that has Scioli “worried.” Scioli has said that his words about a soft landing for the Kirchnerite government in 2015 were twisted and taken out of context by the opposition press.
Fernández de Kirchner continues to be at odds with the media group Clarín and the tension will increase because at some point the Supreme Court will have to rule on the pending issue.
Meanwhile the president is scrambling to deal with election issues. Bankers, pro-government trade unionists and business leaders attended a summit with Fernández de Kirchner in Santa Cruz province on Wednesday for talks that did not include opposition parties.
At issue, and a thorny issue it is, is the wage income tax that has not been updated according to inflation. The president reportedly discussed alternatives to offer income tax breaks to workers while at the same time coming up with policies to fill the gaping hole in revenue this would create.
Bankers and business leaders welcomed the talks and said that another summit has been planned ahead of the elections. Taxpayers have complained about how much tax they are paying. Concern about crime and the income tax dominate the campaign.
When the time comes to vote in October what will count is the number of seats won by each party. Then, maybe, all the nation’s analysts can take a break to ponder what the future holds for Argentina.
That future, by the way, is likely to bring come 2014 a US Supreme Court ruling on the case filed by bondholders who are demanding 1.3 billion dollars in debt after turning down Argentina’s swap offers when Kirchner was president.
A court in New York rejected Argentina’s appeal on Friday, but the case is frozen and the republic is technically not in default.