December 6, 2013
Crime and punishment
The Victory Front changes strategy in a bid not to lose votes
There’s something odd about this specific midterm election. You know the way election night, Sunday October 27, will play out. You know because a primary was held on August 11 and there is little logic in thinking that the outcome will change drastically when the time comes to vote again next month.
Some things could change. The Kirchnerite candidate, for instance, has an outside chance of winning the gubernatorial elections in Corrientes today. But Corrientes is not Buenos Aires province where President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s Victory Front coalition was defeated by Tigre Mayor Sergio Massa, a former Kirchnerite and Cabinet chief who now heads the Peronist opposition Renewal Front. Massa outvoted Lomas de Zamora Mayor Martín Insaurralde, the Victory Front candidate, 35-29 in Buenos Aires province.
Technicality the Victory Front did not lose because the primaries are designed for rival factions within political parties and coalitions to face each other. Neither Massa and Insaurralde faced any internal challenge, meaning that they will face each other again in October.
Polls show that Massa now has a lead of at least ten points over Insaurralde. That makes the race odd. Something similar happened in the presidential race of 2011 when the PASO primary election system was also used. But back in 2011 President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was re-elected. This time it’s looking like the Victory Front will take a beating in Buenos Aires province, which is supposed to be its bastion.
So what exactly is there left to do when an election results look so patently obvious? You can twiddle your thumbs or you can speculate about what will happen after the elections.
Already ranting about Argentina’s near political future is Elisa Carrió, a centrist congressional candidate in Buenos Aires City for the UNEN coalition. Carrió has declared that some Peronist party factions, including Massa supporters, want to push Fernández de Kirchner out of office well before the end of her mandate in 2015.
Carrió, who is now a frontrunner in the congressional race in Buenos Aires City, is known for making spectacular political predictions that often do not materialize. But Carrió is also a well-known politician, meaning that at least you have to listen to what she has to say.
Carrió is predicting that Massa’s front and other centre-right Peronist factions will unleash a fierce power struggle in the Peronist party after the midterm vote that will lead to a major political crisis designed to see off Fernández de Kirchner.
Other observers say that Fernández de Kirchner will be under a lot of pressure after October if she refuses to, for instance, further weaken the peso against the dollar. Carrió has named some names. One official named by Carrió as a potential conspirator is José de Mendiguren, a congressional candidate on Massa’s ticket. De Mendiguren is the former head of the Argentine Industrial Union (UIA) and he also served as Production minister during the brief caretaker presidency headed by Eduardo Duhalde, a Peronist, between 2002-2003.
During Duhalde’s traumatic presidency the peso was unpegged from the dollar overnight prompting a drastic devaluation. According to many observers the mastermind of devaluation in 2002 was De Mendi-guren.
De Mendiguren has been outraged by Carrió’s accusations and has dared her to take her allegations to court. He has also flatly denied that he is now sponsoring a new devaluation.
The peso, however, loses a cent or two a week against the dollar, meaning that it is slowly but surely weakening. De Mendiguren, who complains constantly about Argentine businesses now lacking “competitiveness,” is not openly saying that he would like to see an even weaker peso. But he has declared that in the future Argentina should sponsor a wide agreement to, for instance, tie salary hikes to productivity. Salaries are currently negotiated annually in collective bargaining. Question. Would De Mendiguren (and Massa) like to see that change?
Calls for “dialogue” and a “great national accord” are not new in Argentina. The president herself, after the Victory Front’s defeat in August, has called for talks with the nation’s “big players”: bankers, business leaders and trade unionists.
You know what the result will be on October 27. But the president is scrambling to reach that election deadline without losing any more votes.
Most observers are reporting that the Victory Front won 26 percent of the vote in August. But the Victory Front and allies won 30.9 percent of the vote, meaning that they performed almost exactly like in the midterm election defeat of 2009.
Fernández de Kirchner, while calling the talks with the “big players,” is aiming to hold the ruling coalition together in the face of defeat. Since August Fernández de Kirchner has raised the income tax floor substantially. On Wednesday, after a new round of talks with the players, the government also announced an income tax break for independent workers.
Fernández de Kirchner is often portrayed by her critics as stubborn, almost messianic. But it looks like the president has got the message.
The bruising Kirchnerite strategy is changing. The Victory Front candidates had shunned making television appearances on channels owned by the media group Clarín ahead of the vote in August. But now the Kirchnerite candidates have agreed to debates with rivals on those same channels even when the national government and Grupo Clarín are still at odds over the Media Law, approved in 2009 and frozen pending a Supreme Court ruling.
The tax breaks are another sign that it has dawned on the president that changes must be made.
Income tax, which had not been updated according to inflation, turned out to be a major campaign issue. Another issue is crime. Fear of crime has been often a concern ahead of an election, but it then fades away. But this time it really has turned into a dominant issue.
Insaurralde has tried a major shift in the Victory Front’s approach by declaring that he will sponsor a bill to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 14. Insaurralde’s decision prompted rife debate in the Victory Front, which has consistently refused to address calls for an “iron fist” approach to dealing with crime.
Yet on Friday, Cabinet Chief Juan Manuel Abal Medina, one of the president’s main campaign strategists, said he “celebrated” Insaurralde’s initiative, which is now being described as a sweeping reform of the legal system to deal with juvenile delinquents. Juvenile delinquents, Abal Medina said, should not be thrown in jail with adults. But they must be placed under arrest if they commit crimes.
The comments came on the same day Buenos Aires province Governor Daniel Scioli, a moderate Kirchnerite, swore in a new tough-talking Security minister: Ezeiza Mayor Alejandro Granados.
Scioli said on Friday that officials must keep all options open to fight crime. Granados meanwhile has vowed to “flood” the streets of Buenos Aires province with police officers and Border Guards. Granados’ appointment shows that the Greater Buenos Aires mayors are gaining more power at a time there seems to be a bitter territorial power struggle in the Peronist party in Greater Buenos Aires between the south (represented by Insaurralde) and the north (represented by Massa).
Massa thrashed Insaurralde in the northern Greater Buenos Aires districts. Insaurralde won in the south by less of a margin. It’s important for both Scioli and Insaurralde (ultimately for CFK also) to win again in southern Greater Buenos Aires to avoid a complete debacle at the hands of Massa’s front.
Another oddity in this election is that the president’s personal approval rating still clocks in at an acceptable 40 percent.
The primary election all but buried any veiled Victory Front plans to reform the Constitution to allow Fernández de Kirchner to seek a third consecutive term in office. But what if, now that she begins to bow out, the president’s popularity grows after the election? It could happen.
Yet for now the election is dominated by the indignant street demonstrations that broke out in September last year nationwide to complain about inflation, crime, the justice system reform and the currency exchange controls.
Argentina has gone through some drastic mood swings since the Kirchners first rose to power in 2003.
The economy, according to the 2014 budget presented in Congress by Economy Minister Hernán Lorenzino on Thursday, is expected to grow 6.2 percent next year.
Taxpayers will have more money in their pockets due to the breaks offered ahead of October. The Senate on Thursday passed a reform to finance the income tax breaks by taxing company dividends and unlisted stocks. Congress, which is still controlled by the Victory Front, has also moved fast to approve reopening the foreign debt swap as the case with holdout creditors rages in the US courts.
For a minute, it’s easy to think that things are not going all that badly for CFK and the Victory Front. Now think about Carrió’s dire predictions again. There is a sense of stability at the moment. But after October it could turn out to be a false sense of stability.