December 8, 2013
Things are never entirely predictable even when it’s pretty clear what the outcome of the October 27 midterm election will be. The big picture is not likely to change. That big picture shows the Victory Front coalition losing in all the major districts: Buenos Aires province, Buenos Aires City, Cordoba and Santa Fe. But Argentina’s political situation is not a picture that you can always take at face value. Specific issues in each province can still change certain results in specific elections.
For instance the ruling Victory Front won August’s primary election in Entre Ríos province, which is run by the staunch Kirchnerite Governor Sergio Urribarri. Urribarri’s Kirchnerites are likely to win again. But suddenly these have turned into testing times for Urribarri when apparently he had the election win in his back pocket.
Uruguay’s President José Mujica on Wednesday announced that he is allowing the Finnish-owned pulp mill UPM to increase output from 1.1 million tons to 1.2 million tons. The mill lies on the banks of the Uruguay River, on the Uruguayan side of the border across from the Entre Ríos town of Gualeguaychú. If ever there was a long story it is the pulp mill conflict that has enraged Gualeguaychú, a city that has staged roadblocks and demonstrations between 2006 and 2010 against the monster plant Uruguay has built under its nose across the river.
Mujica’s announcement comes smack in the middle of Argentina’s election campaign. It will have an effect in Entre Ríos. The vote possibly explains why Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman and Urribarri quickly reacted to Mujica’s announcement by calling a press conference in Government House on Wednesday night. Timerman released information showing that the mill is contaminating the River Uruguay, which is jointly managed by Argentina and Uruguay.
The minister, with Urribarri standing by his side, vowed that Argentina will again take the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague claiming that the new developments breached an agreement signed between President Fernández de Kirchner and Mujica to coordinate the administration of the river. Timerman described Mujica’s decision as “unilateral.”
Fernández de Kirchner and Mujica crossed paths in Buenos Aires on Monday night to christen a new Buquebus company ferry. The whiff of another diplomatic argument was in the air as Fernández de Kirchner and Mujica scoured the ferry.
Mujica, as you probably know by now, is a bit of a character. He is a former leftist guerrilla who lives in a small farm in the outskirts of Montevideo. Mujica recently charmed the world with his speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York where he criticized consumerism. Mujica is, in a way, the atheist man’s Pope Francis. But austere Mujica is at times anguished by CFK.
The president of tiny Uruguay was recently caught by an open microphone complaining about Fernández de Kirchner’s intransigence and describing her as “a stubborn old bag.”
There was no agreement on the pulp mill production issue when both presidents met on Monday night, possibly because Fernández de Kirchner needs to protect every single vote that she has for the Victory Front to hold its ground in the face of defeat.
At stake on October 27 is the control of Congress, which is currently in the hands of the Victory Front. The outcome of the election will show what kind of clout Fernández de Kirchner will have in Congress during the last two years of her presidential mandate.
There was little progress on the pulp mill dispute on Monday. Fernández de Kirchner and Mujica tried to put on friendly faces at the inauguration of the new ferry that will plough the waters of the River Plate between both nations. But reportedly Argentine and Uruguayan diplomats held further meetings the next day behind closed doors.
There is every chance that the situation will change after the elections. But right now it looks like Argentina is not prepared to risk tolerating an increase in the production at the pulp mill without some posturing.
Gualeguaychú is home to the leader of the small farmers Alfredo De Angeli, a senatorial candidate for the centre-right party PRO headed by Buenos Aires City Mayor Mauricio Macri. It’s unlikely that the result in Entre Ríos will change dramatically. But when events start to roll, like today’s anti-pulp mill demonstration called by Gualeguaychú activists, officials have little control over what can be unleashed.
The demonstrators are even vowing to march on the neighbouring Uruguayan town of Fray Bentos to take their protest to the frontdoor of their pulp-producing neighbours. Yet authorities in Uruguay are expected to only allow a delegation from Gualeguaychú to cross the border.
Now take a look at the big election picture again. Urribarri has a lot at stake because he is a potential Victory Front presidential candidate in 2015. Another possible candidate on the president’s side is Buenos Aires province Governor Daniel Scioli, a moderate who is formally in charge of the Peronist party.
You might have already noticed but there are potential presidential candidates popping up all over the place in this election year.
Buenos Aires province? Tigre Mayor Sergio Massa, a rebel former Kirchnerite now in the opposition, is in the presidential race after defeating the Victory Front in August there. Buenos Aires City? Macri has already declared that he will make a bid for the presidency in 2015. Santa Fe? Hermes Binner, a former governor and socialist presidential candidate, also fancies his chances because the is the favourite to win on October 27 in Santa Fe. Mendoza? Julio Cobos, a Radical who served as CFK’s veep between 2007-2011 and famously voted against her grains export duties increase by breaking a tie in the Senate, is also emerging as a winner from this year’s electoral battle.
Almost every province seems to house a presidential hopeful. Córdoba? Governor José Manuel de la Sota, a Peronist and an anti-Kirchnerite, is also likely to try his luck. The only certain thing after August is that Fernández de Kirchner is in no position to reform the Constitution to seek a new mandate in 2015. There will be no Fernández de Kirchner in the presidential race of 2015.
Fernández de Kirchner can still presumably handpick the Kirchnerite presidential candidate that she considers fit. But challengers like Scioli will still have the right to run in the Victory Front/Peronist party primaries. Scioli has already declared that, if the president does not seek re-election, then he will make a bid to clinch the Peronist presidential nomination — regardless of what the ultra-Kirchnerites think.
Scioli headed a rare meeting of the Peronist party’s national leadership on Monday night that was attended by all the Kirchnerite bigwigs, including the Cabinet Chief Juan Manuel Abal Medina.
The party’s top leadership, the National Justicialist Council, issued a statement voicing strong support for Fernández de Kirchner.
The Peronist party is formally part of the Victory Front coalition. San Juan Governor José Luis Gioja said on Monday at the gathering that the Peronist party is the “backbone” the Victory Front (much like Juan Perón when he described the trade union movement as the “backbone” of Peronism).
The Peronist party (officially known in Spanish as Partido Justicialista) still supports CFK despite August’s defeat. But there was also some subtle jockeying on display at the party meeting in preparation for what is likely to be a presidential showdown in the Peronist ranks after October 27.
Massa and other powerful rebels, including the teamster Hugo Moyano, also call themselves “Peronists” and want nothing to do at the moment with the Peronist leadership headed by Scioli, which has just sworn loyalty to Fernández de Kirchner. But will Massa decide to take part in an official Peronist party presidential primary in 2015? Will he be allowed to do so by the Kirchnerites? Carlos Kunkel, the ultra-Kirchnerite lawmaker, has said that Massa’s party membership had been “suspended” because he is running against the official Victory Front candidate, Lomas de Zamora Mayor Martín Insaurralde, in Buenos Aires province.
The opposition is likely to celebrate on the night of October 27. But when it wakes up the next day it will realize that there is still a lot of political engineering work left to be done if the Kirchnerites are to be unseated.