December 10, 2013
Budget stays alive
The opposition is far from united in Congress
Argentina’s political reality is a bit like a shattered mirror. You can put the pieces back together again, but when you hold up the glass reality will still look fragmented. It’s also really easy to think that the broken bits of mirror only apply to your rival. So if you are in the opposition you tend to think that only the ruling Victory Front coalition of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has to deal with that broken-mirror effect. Look again.
The opposition, which won the primaries in August, would like to make you think that it is as smooth as the glass of an unharmed mirror. Yet, alas, it is also fragmented in many bits just like the rest of Argentina. You don’t think so?
Well, then take a look at the outcome of the Budget 2014 bill vote in the Lower House of Congress at the break of dawn on Thursday. There was a lot of speculation that the Victory Front would struggle to approve the Budget bill because it was already suffering defections after the dismal primary result in August. There was even talk, stoked by the opposition press, that the Victory Front would struggle to open the session to debate the Budget bill because it could not muster the required 129-seat quorum in the 257-seat Lower House. Yet the session did open. And by the end of that long and winding debate, which started on Wednesday and spilled into the wee ours of Thursday, the Budget was approved by the Victory Front and allies 134-113. It now moves to the Senate. End of story?
Not really. The Budget is always a big story because it tells you what the national government wants you to believe will be Argentina’s economic reality in 2014. So here it is. Inflation, according to the government, will clock in annually at 10.2 percent next year, a dollar will trade for 6.33 pesos and the economy will grow 6.2 percent. All these figures are contested by the opposition. The official inflation rate, as measured by the state-run INDEC statistics bureau, is not reliable. A dollar in the black market currently trades for at least 9.50 pesos and some critics are also starting to question other official data, including the annual growth rate.
The critics say you can’t trust the Budget. But back in the Lower House that Budget, a fudged one if you believe the opposition, was approved.
Wait a minute. What happened to all those stories about a weaker Victory Front? The Victory Front’s congressional debacle, even ahead of the midterm vote in October, failed to materialize. The Budget bill was approved by the Kirchnerite whips with the support of a Radical lawmaker from Corrientes, two lawmakers loyal to the dissident Peronist government of San Luis province, the conservative Salta lawmaker Alfredo Olmedo, and even a lawmaker from Tierra del Fuego who had recently announced that he was quitting the Victory Front to join the ranks of Tigre Mayor Sergio Massa, the Peronist now fiercely at odds with the national government who won the August primaries in Buenos Aires province (the nation’s largest voting district).
There you have it. When you look at reality in a broken mirror it stares back at you in all its shattered-glass magnificence. Yes, the Victory Front garnered 30.9 percent of the votes (counting allies) in August. But those keeping count are now trying to make everybody believe that the rest of that 70 percent is actually united. It is not at the moment and the outcome in the Lower House of Congress shows just how difficult it is for the opposition to get its act together.
The Lower House has also approved extending the cheque tax and the state of economic emergency. Argentina seems to be in a perpetual state of economic emergency if you ask its rulers.
There’s plenty of accusations about the national government trying to fudge the Budget. But how about Argentina’s politicos in general trying to fudge reality?
Massa, after defeating the Victory Front candidate Martín Insaurralde in Buenos Aires province, is looking very much like a winning presidential candidate for 2015. Polls show that Massa, who served as CFK’s Cabinet chief between 2008-2009 and is now clearly in the opposition, currently holds a lead of at least 10 points over Insaurralde. Massa defeated Insaurralde 35-29 in last month’s primaries. Much of the opposition vote that in August supported Francisco de Narváez, a centre-right Peronist, is now expected to side with Massa next month.
Massa, if the polls are right, is heading for one spectacular victory in Buenos Aires province, which has historically been a Peronist bastion. The race in Buenos Aires province, especially in sprawling Greater Buenos Aires, is very much the battle of Peronist versus Peronist. The Peronist party officially belongs to the ruling Victory Front coalition. Massa thrashed Insaurralde in northern Greater Buenos Aires (where Tigre is located) last month. Insaurralde, the mayor of Lomas de Zamora, defeated Massa in most of southern Greater Buenos Aires. But Insaurralde’s win in the south (where Lomas de Zamora is located) was not big enough to compensate the huge loss in the north and other parts of Buenos Aires province. Insaurralde won in La Matanza, the largest district in Greater Buenos Aires.
Massa has decided to start canvassing for next month’s election with a motorcade through La Matanza, which is still in the hands of the Kirchnerites loyal to the president. Massa will humiliate the Victory Front, and the president leading the campaign, if he manages to carry La Matanza and other southern districts in Greater Buenos Aires, the sprawling urban belt that surrounds Buenos Aires City and is dominated by the working class.
That would explain why there was so much tension surrounding Massa’s motorcade through La Matanza on Sunday. The tension prompted violence when the motorcade was practically ambushed by a group of pro-government demonstrators, according to reports and Massa’s camp.
Stones and eggs were hurled at the convoy that was headed by Massa waving from a white van. Massa himself reportedly took a hit in the chest by an object fired at him by somebody using a slingshot.
Eventually the entire Kirchnerite top brass condemned the violence in La Matanza. La Matanza Mayor Fernando Espinoza, a staunch Kirchnerite, personally contacted Massa to express his support. But initially some militant Kirchnerites, headed by the La Matanza-based activist Luis D’Elía, said that Massa’s ordeal was due to the “people of La Matanza” oppositing any notion of returning to the neoconservative policies of the nineties. But D’Elía apologized and also condemned the assault later in the week.
Tension is thus in the air even when the politics of this nation since the primaries were held on August 11 had been surprisingly uneventful. Insaurralde, handpicked by CFK to lead the Kirchnerite ticket in Buenos Aires province, also initially accused Massa of “playing the victim.”
The Victory Front desperately needs to hold its ground in La Matanza and the rest of southern Greater Buenos Aires to avoid facing difficult political times immediately after the elections.
The Victory Front held its ground in the Lower House of Congress when it won the Budget 2014 bill vote. But after the election the new lawmakers, including Massa, will take their seats in Congress (come December).
Much of the nation’s power, after her landslide re-election victory in 2011, was concentrated in the hands of Fernández de Kirchner. That power will be shared differently after the votes are counted and the congressional seats are distributed on the night of October 27. The election result is likely to show that Fernández de Kirchner has no chance of reforming the Constitution to seek a third term in office in 2015.
Yet the president will still be the president, especially if you ask the millions of citizens who have voted for the Victory Front.
There is even an outside chance that the president’s popularity will increase when she begins to bow out. Fernández de Kirchnner is still going about official business and is now granting a series of Sunday television interviews to journalists, presumably in a bid to protect her own personal popularity now that the Victory Front’s power has taken a hit.
The president was in New York for the best part of the week to attend the annual United Nations General Assembly. Much of the assembly was dominated by Iran’s “historic” talks with the United States. Iran is very much an issue for Argentina because five former Iranian officials are accused of masterminding the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish centre in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.
Fernández de Kirchner used her United Nations address on Tuesday to demand “answers” from Iran’s new leadership. Argentina recently signed an agreement with Iran to establish a “truth commission.” The agreement, which is opposed by the leaders of Argentina’s large Jewish community and allows Argentine court officials to question the suspects in Tehran, was approved by Argentina’s Congress. Fernández de Kirchner urged Iran on Tuesday to declare if its parliament had also approved the agreement signed by Tehran’s previous authorities.
Argentine Minister Héctor Timerman met with his Iranian counterpart Javar Zarif in New York yesterday. At press time Iran was declaring the agreement “approved,” reports said. That development comes when the leaders of the United States and Iran have made contact for the first time since 1979. Is there a new context now also for the AMIA case investigation?