December 12, 2013
Sometimes it feels like elections are so easy to predict. You have all those sophisticated public opinion polls to go by. You monitor the news daily. But then reality, unexpected reality, will unleash all its force. The Once train station crash that yesterday injured at least 80 people is one of those unexpected occurrences that can have an impact on public opinion. It’s not the only one. Pollsters are already trying to figure out the current popularity of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner after she underwent surgery at the Favaloro Foundation hospital to drain a small hematoma on her head on October 8. Doctors have ordered the president to “strictly” rest for 30 days to recover from the operation.
Polls show that the president’s popularity has increased since her operation, especially in Greater Buenos Aires, and that her approval rating now stands at about 44 percent. Her positive rating in public opinion exceeds her negative rating according to the latest polls, which is quite something considering that she has been in office since 2007. Events, of course, in the bat of an eyelid can alter the president’s current (and relative) impressive standing even in the face of electoral defeat.
What kind of effect will yesterday’s train crash have on public opinion? Fifty-two people were killed when a Sarmiento train crashed at Once station in February 2012. Fernández de Kirchner reacted slowly to that tragedy and her popularity plummeted back in 2012. Relatives of the 2012 victims blamed inefficiency and suspected government corruption for the fatal crash. They were not pleased by the way in which the president chose to manage the situation after the ugly crash back then.
This new crash against the Once station buffers, which is chillingly similar to the infamous one that shocked Argentina in 2012, will carry fresh political implications with it because the midterm elections are scheduled for next Sunday.
In recent campaigns, the closing week has been crucial and this specific last seven days of canvassing, when the time comes for voters to make their minds up, will be dominated by the news stemming from yet another Sarmiento line crash.
The ruling Victory Front coalition lost the primaries held on August 11 nationwide. The surveys show that the president’s Victory Front is heading for another defeat in all the major districts: Buenos Aires City, Buenos Aires province, Córdoba and Santa Fe. The result will effectively put an end to any plans by the Victory Front, never confirmed by the president, to reform the Constitution to allow Fernández de Kirchner to seek a third consecutive term in office in 2015.
The president is very much out of the political picture at the moment because she is recovering from surgery. Fernández de Kirchner, who even before surgery had altered her strategy and was aiming to protect her personal political reputation two years away from the end of her mandate, is not expected to make any public appearance on election night next Sunday.
Fernández de Kirchner was present at her coalition’s headquarters on the night of August 11 when voters inflicted defeat on the Victory Front. She will not be at the Victory Front headquarters on Sunday night.
Interior and Transport Minister Florencio Randazzo yesterday said that Fernández de Kirchner was not informed of the new train crash yesterday. Government officials during the week had said that the president currently has no contact with officials and is not updated on political events in a bid to protect her from stress, as the doctors treating her have recommended.
The Sarmiento line goes deep into Greater Buenos Aires, a Kirchnerite bastion. It runs from Once station in Buenos Aires City through the sprawling district of La Matanza, where the Victory Front won in August, and into Moreno.
The August primary results show that the Victory Front won in parts of Greater Buenos Aires, including La Matanza. But the win was not big enough to compensate for the landslide support garnered in northern Greater Buenos Aires by Tigre Mayor Sergio Massa, a rebel Peronist running for the Lower House of Congress now at odds with the CFK administration.
Some ultra-Kirchnerites, including the La Matanza activist Luis D’Elía, yesterday implied that sabotage may have caused this latest train crash ahead of the elections.
Randazzo, speaking at a press conference in Government House, said that he was not ruling anything out. Initial reports said that the engine driver had stolen from the train engine the hardware holding the footage of the crash.
Randazzo is at odds with the engine drivers union after the latest accidents, including the Once station crash of 2012. Three people were killed and over 300 people were injured when two Sarmiento trains crashed into each other near Castelar station on June 13 earlier this year.
Randazzo was placed in charge of the transport portfolio by Fernández de Kirchner after the 2012 crash at Once station. There was speculation that Randazzo would run as a Victory Front candidate to the Lower House of Congress in this year’s elections. But the Castelar train crash, which happened before parties named their candidates, put an end to those ambitions, if indeed they ever existed, because Randazzo immediately paid a high political price for the Castelar crash.
Yesterday morning’s crash also happens on the eve of an election. The initial wrath of the commuters yesterday was directed at the engine driver who is in hospital and will now be the subject of an investigation.
The Sarmiento train line now has a dismal safety record. A Sarmiento train slammed into a bus crossing the tracks and then hit another train at Flores station in 2011, killing 11 people.
Randazzo’s growing confrontation with the transport sector trade unions is also a factor. On Friday Randazzo fiercely criticized a strike by airline workers that snarled flights at the Buenos Aires City metropolitan airport.
The minister’s tune is that the railway unions oppose the reforms that he is trying to introduce after the 2012 crash to monitor the performance of workers, especially the engine drivers.
The railway sector unions are powerful and have a say in the management of the main railway lines. The leadership of the UF railway workers union was found guilty of masterminding the 2010 murder of Mariano Ferreyra, a leftist activist of the PO Workers Party who was attending a demonstration by outsourced workers when he was killed. Ferreyra was shot dead by a gang at the service of the UF railway workers’ union.
D’Elía’s conspiracy theory is that the enemies of the Victory Front, including the railway sector unions, are orchestrating the crashes ahead of the election and also to sabotage the reforms that Randazzo is trying to introduce. Opposition critics accuse Randazzo of posturing and say that his reforms are nothing more than superficial changes.
Randazzo yesterday insisted that the train was going faster than it should have been on entering the station and that there was nothing apparently wrong with the engine during the run.
Maybe. But the Victory Front during the campaign has been forced to limit the damage of one scandal after another, regardless of who might be pulling the strings in the shadows.
Juan Cabandié, the Victory Front candidate to the Lower House of Congress in Buenos Aires City and a leader of the Kirchnerite youth group La Cámpora, was entangled in a major scandal when video footage from a hidden camera showed him arguing with a traffic warden and two Border Guards in the Greater Buenos Aires district of Lomas de Zamora. The first clip posted on YouTube showed Cabandié asking for the young traffic warden to be “corrected” for trying to seize his car over lacking insurance papers. The full version of the incident, which happened in May, shows that Cabandié did not want to have the warden sacked and told the officers that he was willing to pay the fine.
The outcome of next Sunday’s vote is still pretty obvious. But the president’s operation, the Cabandié video, and the Once station train crash have brought unexpected drama to the election year.