December 6, 2013
Jarring news, then relief
The president’s sudden head surgery alters the landscape
Alfredo Scoccimarro, the presidential spokesperson, emerging on a Saturday night to face the press was never going to bring good news. What Scoccimarro said jarred the newsrooms of this land, which at that point were half-deserted with editors about to call it a night. Tests, the spokesperson said, showed that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, 60, had suffered a hematoma to the head and doctors had ordered her to rest for a month. By then the president had been at the Favaloro Foundation hospital for most of the day. Argentina woke up last Sunday then with a president who was clearly not at the top of her form.
Sunday was sleepy because Fernández de Kirchner, with the midterm elections scheduled for October 27 looming, had been told to rest. But Monday brought more bad news. The president was back at the Favaloro Foundation once again for tests to be run on her after she complained of tingling in her left arm. The news surrounding the president’s head hematoma, suffered after a fall on August 12, accelerated. Reports eventually said that she was to undergo surgery on Tuesday morning to drain the clot. Argentina, of course, does not have to go that far back in time to remember the health battle of former president Néstor Kirchner, the president’s late husband and predecessor. Kirchner, after undergoing surgery on his right carotid artery, died of a heart attack in 2010 at the age of 60. Now it was Fernández de Kirchner who was facing a surgery that specialists described as fairly straightforward. Yet the nation held its breath at the prospect of the president being subjected to head surgery.
A photograph on Monday showed a thinner Fernández de Kirchner with no makeup on and wearing dark glasses being driven into the hospital premises in Buenos Aires City. Slowly a group of supporters gathered outside.
The ruling Victory Front coalition lost the primaries on August 11 in all the big districts: Buenos Aires City, Buenos Aires province, Córdoba province and Santa Fe province. The Victory Front was heading for exactly the same defeat on October 27 — or possibly an even bigger one.
Yet the president’s operation has changed the scenario dramatically. It is not likely to change the outcome of the election. But will the mood of the nation now change? Scoccimarro emerged once again on Tuesday this time to face the press and the president’s supporters outside the hospital to deliver the first medical report after the operation. Scoccimarro was a changed man from the one who had delivered the sombre news on Saturday night. On Tuesday, even before he uttered a word, he had relief written all over his face. The president’s operation, he said, had been “satisfactory.” Fernández de Kirchner’s supporters broke into celebration. Reports on the president’s condition have been delivered on a daily basis since the operation and no bad news has come with each one of them. The president, who is used to running a gruelling schedule and centralizing the decisions of her administration, could check out of hospital today or tomorrow.
Monday, before the president was admitted again to hospital, was a difficult day for her administration. Critics started to make questions about who was formally running the country. Was it Vice-President Amado Boudou, who polls show is not popular and is facing a series of court investigations for graft and influence peddling? Boudou, before the news of the president’s planned operation broke, made an appearance in Government House on Monday surrounded by top government officials who looked on grimly.
The president, Boudou said, is taking a well-deserved reast. But soon the nation knew that the original recommendation for the president to rest for a month had turned into something else: head surgery scheduled for Tuesday. It then became apparent that the president would have no choice but to formally delegate power to Boudou. Boudou eventually signed the papers to formally take over as caretaker head of state. The body language showed that Boudou practically at all times was surrounded by members of the president’s small inner circle: the presidential chief-of-staff Oscar Parrilli and the president’s Legal Secretary Carlos Zannini. Speculation was rife that a key player in that inner circle was Máximo Kirchner, the president’s eldest child and one of the few persons to have direct access to her after the successful operation.
A photograph on Monday showed Boudou stepping out of Government House flanked by Buenos Aires province Governor Daniel Scioli and Cabinet Chief Juan Manuel Abal Medina. Abal Medina at one point declared that the government was ready to deal with the president’s absence as a “team,” technically headed by Boudou. But Abal Medina was soon forced to correct himself by dismissing the notion that Argentina was being run by a “co-government.” All final decisions are made by the president, he said. Power, he added, still rests in the hands of the president. For a moment it looked like Boudou had been told to lower his profile.
Scioli was the first official on Tuesday morning to break the news that the president’s operation had gone well. Martín Insaurralde, the ruling Victory Front coalition’s top candidate to the Lower House in Buenos Aires province, purportedly asked for Boudou not to be involved in any canvassing.
Insaurralde lost the primary in August in Buenos Aires province against Tigre Mayor Sergio Massa, a rebel Peronist who is now at odds with the Fernández de Kirchner administration. Practically all political parties called for moderation, but the campaign was not called off.
Only the Peronist lawmaker Felipe Solá, now in Massa’s camp, ridiculed the idea that Boudou could be taken seriously as a caretaker president. Boudou was visiting Brazil when the president was rushed to hospital originally on Saturday. A Brazilian newspaper photographed Boudou riding a big motorcycle through the streets of Brasilia. But Solá’s rash comments did not go down well with other opposition leaders, including Buenos Aires City Mayor Mauricio Macri (the leader of the centre-right party PRO).
Macri called for institutional responsibility.
The debate about Boudou was rife, but the Constitution clearly states the role of the vice-president when the head of state is not fit to run the nation. The wheels of government continued to turn.
The 2014 budget bill was approved by the Senate on Wednesday night. The national government on Thursday reached an agreement worth US$ 500 million to solve disputes with five corporations at the World Bank’s ICSID arbitration centre.
The pulp mill dispute with Uruguay also continued to give off sparks when Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman issued a report on Wednesday alleging that the plant based in the neighbouring country is polluting the area. Timerman urged Montevideo to return to the negotiating table. Uruguayan President José Mujica quipped the next day that only God can deliver ultimatums.
On Wednesday night, the three leading Lower House candidates in Buenos Aires City (PRO’s Sergio Bergman, UNEN’s Elisa Carrió and the Victory Front’s Juan Cabandié) faced one another gallantly in a rare television debate.
The prospect now is that Fernández de Kirchner will be fully fit and back at the office before the end of the year. The election result is not likely to change on October 27. But the president’s surgery has already set in motion a series of extraordinary events that will continue to unfold uncontrolled.
The president’s approval rating stood at approximately 40 percent before she fell ill, which is not bad for a head of state who has been in office since 2007. Insaurralde, the mayor of the Lomas de Zamora district, in Buenos Aires province won 29.5 percent of the votes, meaning that he failed to fully collect on the president’s popularity probably because he is relatively unknown.
New polls are likely to show that the president’s popularity has increased slightly. But still the Victory Front is facing defeat. Yet is there really now room for angry street demonstrations against a president who has a popularity rating of, say, 43 percent?
Ruling a notoriously volatile nation such as Argentina takes a toll. San Juan Governor José Gioja, a Peronist loyal to CFK, is fighting for his life after being involved in a helicopter crash on Friday that killed the veteran Victory Front lawmaker Margarita Ferrá de Bartol.
Meanwhile Santa Fe province Governor Antonio Bonfatti, a Socialist party official, was the target of an armed attack on Friday night. Investigators are now probing if the gang that opened fire on the governor’s residence while he was inside are connected to drug traffickers. Jarring.