December 10, 2013
Violets are blue, circles are red
The political situation, as things now stand, looks pretty stable. But don’t fool yourself. It is a false sense of stability. All the nation’s politicos seem to be behaving themselves because the October midterm elections are looming. The ruling Victory Front coalition suffered heavy defeats in last month’s primaries in Buenos Aires province, Buenos Aires City, Córdoba and Santa Fe. There’s no reason to think that the Victory Front will not be defeated in those key districts again when the real vote takes place on October 27.
The candidates who won in August, including Tigre Mayor Sergio Massa in Buenos Aires province, now have to keep still until October to win again. Massa, a Peronist who served as President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s Cabinet chief between 2008-2009, convincingly defeated Lomas de Zamora Mayor Martín Insaurralde, the official Kirchnerite candidate to the Lower House of Congress in Buenos Aires province. Massa garnered 35 percent of the vote against Insaurralde’s 29 percent in August’s primaries. Polls show that Massa will defeat Insaurralde by a wider margin in October.
It’s no surprise then that now scrambling to improve things are the Kirchnerite candidates, including Insaurralde. The Victory Front did show some signs it is still alive in August. It won in Entre Ríos, Río Negro and most northern provinces.
CFK also highlighted during the week that a Kirchnerite candidate won Sunday’s mayoral elections in the city of Bariloche, Río Negro. But all this will mean nothing if the Victory Front, when the votes are counted on the night of October 27, loses control of Congress. Little has changed for the opposition since last month. But a lot seems to be changing in the Kirchnerite camp in a bid to win enough seats in October to still control Congress, even when the defeat in Buenos Aires province looks irreversible.
This race might have a presidential feel to it. But up for grabs are parliamentary seats. Even in the face of defeat what Fernández de Kirchner needs is not to lose votes in October and for the Victory Front to hold together.
Insaurralde has the backing of Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli, a moderate Kirchnerite who at one point earlier this year reportedly considered joining forces with Massa before the elections. But Scioli and Massa are now bitter rivals and both are potential presidential candidates in 2015.
Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, the leader of the centre-right party PRO, has also been busy reminding everybody that he too plans to run for president 2015.
Macri had spent most of the primary race last month insisting that he had an agreement with Massa in Buenos Aires province. Macri’s PRO is the dominant party in Buenos Aires City but it fielded no candidates in Buenos Aires province, where it has less territorial clout, to favour Massa.
Yet Massa has in turn insisted that he does not have a deal with PRO in order not to lose Peronist votes.
Macri was interviewed by major dailies last Sunday. He now seems to have realized that he will have to face Massa in a presidential showdown in 2015. Macri told his interviewers that he felt obliged to back Massa in August because voters were demanding a united opposition to face up to the Victory Front.
But Macri is now suddenly highlighting Massa’s Kirchnerite past. Massa, for instance, has been endorsed by Alberto Fernández, a former Cabinet chief to the late president Néstor Kirchner between 2003-2007. Fernández also served as CFK’s Cabinet chief until 2008.
Macri accused Fernández of foul play during election campaigns when he was Cabinet chief. Macri also said that a so-called “red circle” of influential people favoured the strategy of endorsing Massa in Buenos Aires province. The “red circle” expression used by Macri on the record set off alarm bells in the Victory Front camp and beyond.
The president, on her way to Russia to attend the G20 summit, tweeted that Macri’s “red circle” amounted to a group of powerful conspirators out to topple her administration ahead of the end of her mandate in 2015. Luis D’Elía, a militant Kirchnerite activist, said that the “red circle” included the giant media group Clarín, the Techint business group and the rightwing union leader Luis Barrionuevo. Macri quickly explained that “red circle” was an expression used by PRO officials to refer to a few hundreds of thousands of influential people in the country who are interested in politics.
Fernández de Kirchner wasn’t buying it. The “red circle,” she said, will be followed by a “black circle” of political doom for the nation.
Can you really blame Fernández de Kirchner for feeling that her political rivals would like for her days to be numbered?
Argentina has a history of political turbulence ever since a military coup toppled Radical president Hipólito Yrigoyen in 1930. 1930? That is a long way back. All right. Then consider that in 2001 a financial meltdown forced the resignation of then president Fernando de la Rúa, a Radical elected president in 1999.
There’s more background. But in a nutshell you can’t rule out that Fernández de Kirchner will be under extreme pressure to leave office ahead of time after October. Yet the fact that Scioli and most other Victory Front governors have held their ground and decided not to side with Massa will also be part of the political equation.
The fact that Scioli and Massa are rivals is good news for Fernández de Kirchner.
Massa won in August by thrashing the Victory Front in northern Greater Buenos Aires (where Tigre lies) and by losing by a lesser margin in southern Greater Buenos Aires. Scioli’s challenge is to hold the Victory Front coalition together after October. The president has been defiantly tweeting about “conspiracies” and “red circles” again. But defeat seems to have sunk in.
Fernández de Kirchner’s camp also seems to have got the message that crime and income tax emerged as the two dominant campaign issues of the race.
The president, after losing the primaries, summoned what she described as the “big players” (bankers, business executives and pro-government trade union leaders) to a negotiating table. Fernández de Kirchner did not include opposition parties in the talks. But she quickly hammered out an agreement with those big fish to raise the income tax floor to salaries of 15,000 pesos a month gross.
There are many technicalities attached to the income tax break. But the Victory Front still controls Congress and a plan to tax unlisted stocks and company revenue to compensate for the reform has been whisked through the Lower House for approval and is also expected to be rapidly passed by the Senate.
The president’s decision to reopen the debt swap indefinitely to cater for the demands of holdouts who did not accept the restructuring of 2005 and 2010 was approved by the Senate on Wednesday. The Lower House is also expected to approve the swap. Fernández de Kirchner announced the new swap after an appeals court in New York ruled on August 23 in favour of the holdouts, branded as “vultures” by the president, who are demanding 1.3 billion dollars in defaulted debt.
Argentina’s massive default of 2001 has thus come back to haunt the republic. Fernández de Kirchner tried to turn the “vulture funds” into an issue at the G20 summit also attended by US President Barack Obama. But there was no reference to vultures in the official G20 statement and Fernández de Kirchner did not get to meet with Obama in Russia.
“Ask Obama,” the president told a reporter sarcastically in Russia who asked about the vultures.
Fernández de Kirchner championed capital market regulation in St. Petersburg and she also emphatically condemned any plans to use force against Syria after the chemical weapons attack by the regime.
Obama had no time for CFK. But she did meet with her host in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin. CFK highlighted Pope Francis’ letter calling for peace and said that she had used her “Tarzan English” to discuss the pontiff’s statement with Putin.
Argentina on Friday asked the New York appeals court for a rehearing on the debt swap ruling.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has also timidly said that any ruling against Argentina could ruin other debt swaps of the future by nations in financial trouble. But the Obama administration has refrained from speaking in favour of Argentina at the US court.
Income tax, not debt, was one main campaign issue. The “vultures” are not necessarily popular in Argentina where many still blame the IMF and “neoliberal” economic policies for the brutal crash of 2001.
Another major campaign issue was crime. Massa canvassed in Buenos Aires province vowing to fit the entire territory with CCTV cameras to fight crime. Now Scioli and Insaurralde are also taking a tough stance on crime. Insaurralde has declared that he backs a bid to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 14. Scioli has meanwhile reshuffled his security portfolio.
The governor has decided to split the Justice and Security Ministry currently headed by Ricardo Casal, who in the past has been at odds with the leftwing of the Victory Front. Casal will stay on as Justice minister in Scioli’s Cabinet. But the province’s new separate Security Ministry will be headed by Alejandro Granados, the mayor of the Greater Buenos Aires district of Ezeiza.
Granados claims to have mastered crime in Ezeiza by heavily patrolling the district. Granados, who is still loyal to Scioli and the Victory Front, also famously in the nineties resisted a burglary in his house by opening fire against the robbers.
Granados’ appointment is one more sign that the mayors of Greater Buenos Aires are amassing political power. Massa is a mayor. Insaurralde is a mayor, and so is Granados. All the power to the mayors then? One opposition lawmaker said on Friday that Scioli had named Granados in a desperate bid to stop Peronist mayors from joining Massa’s camp now that he is looking so much like a winner.