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July 22, 2014
Sunday, March 9, 2014

Massa messes things up

Remember that l-o-o-o-o-o-o-ng State of the Nation speech President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner delivered to Congress on March 1? Well it signalled the official start of the political year. Twenty-fourteen will be odd because it is not an election year. But politicians will be politicians. Even when the presidential elections are scheduled for 2015. The president, after the ruling Victory Front coalition lost the midterm elections in all major districts, will not seek to reform the Constitution to seek her second consecutive re-election next year. There are many potential presidential candidates out there, including the rebel Peronist lawmaker Sergio Massa, who defeated the Kirchnerites in Buenos Aires province in 2013. What is a politician who thinks that he can win the presidency a year from now to do? Keep himself busy and in the news, that’s what. And that is precisely what Massa, the former mayor of the northern Greater Buenos Aires district of Tigre, has been trying to do now that he has taken his seat in Congress. Massa has grabbed headlines by fiercely opposing the Penal Code reform draft, saying that it effectively lowers the punishment for many crimes. Critics called Massa’s complaints crass. The draft, which is not yet a bill to be formally debated in Congress, is the product of the work of a group of legal experts headed by the progressive Supreme Court Justice Eugenio Zaffaroni. Opposition parties, including the Radical Party and the centre-right party PRO headed by the Buenos Aires City Mayor Mauricio Macri, took part in the discussions to reform the Penal Code, which dates back to 1921. The draft was formally presented to Fernández de Kirchner recently. Federico Pinedo, a PRO lawmaker and a respected centre-right politician, was part of the group of experts that met with the president.

There was something incredibly civilized about the way the Penal Code reform story was playing out. The president on March 1 displayed a softer side when she addressed Congress. She told the congressional assembly that the day before she had taken a call from Macri to discuss the squat on land in the working-class neighbourhood of Villa Lugano.

Pinedo at the Government House? Fernández de Kirchner taking a call from a centre-right mayor? At last signs of “dialogue” and “consensus,” as demanded by the opposition during the campaign last year? Maybe. But then Massa started to complain about the Penal Code reform. What were the politicians thinking? Massa asked rhetorically. He said the reform would benefit criminals and hurt the interests of everyday working people.

The comments wrong-footed much of the opposition. The reform, for instance, includes the work of the formal Radical lawmaker Ricardo Gil Lavedra. Crime has been an issue for years. It now tops the list of concerns, according to polls. Crime arguably was the main issue during the midterm elections last year. Also arguably, crime had not been an issue in previous elections, even when it was considered a problem.

Massa has bragged about how his CCTV system and municipal forces have curbed crime in Tigre. But soon after Massa fired off his criticism many opposition leaders started to complain about “demagoguery.” Pinedo, during a television interview, said ironically that Massa’s party was not part of the initial discussions about the Penal Code because the former Tigre mayor was until recently a Kirchnerite.

Massa served as Fernández de Kirchner’s Cabinet chief for a year between 2008 and 2009. He was shown the door when Néstor Kirchner, the president’s late husband and presidential predecessor, lost the midterm elections in 2009 in Buenos Aires province. Kirchner reportedly felt “betrayed” by Massa when he realized that the local candidates had garnered more votes than he did in Tigre. Massa also famously stars in a WikiLeaks chapter describing Kirchner as a “psycho” in private conversations with US diplomats.

Máximo Kirchner, the president’s son and leader of the Kirchnerite youth group La Cámpora, has said in an interview that Massa was part of a group of officials who had betrayed his father. He added that Massa’s win last year was partly due to “confusion” in voters who saw in the former Cabinet chief an architect of pension system benefits (Massa before he was named Cabinet chief was the head of the ANSeS social security agency). Máximo Kirchner, who is part of the president’s small inner circle, also said that his mother had never considered running for the presidency again in 2015 and that the Victory Front had lost other midterm elections.

Yet last year’s defeat has produced Massa, who needs to keep a high profile if he is to stand the chance of winning the presidency next year. Massa was not that much in the news. But with his criticism of the Penal Code reform the former mayor has pulled off a stunt. Isn’t that what professional politicians are supposed to do?

Massa said the reform was the product of lofty politicians and judges (more specifically Zaffaroni) out of touch with reality. Massa’s move forced Macri to call a press conference. Macri announced that PRO was withdrawing support for the Penal Code saying that it was not the right time for such a debate because the CFK administration is on the way out.

The Radical Party also made it clear that Gil Lavedra is a party member but that his role in the Penal Code reform commission had been that of a renowned lawyer.

Radical Deputy Julio Cobos (CFK’s former vice-president and now again in the opposition) also criticized the draft.

Massa, who turned crime into the main campaign issue last year, pulled a fast one on the opposition by saying that the changes will make the court system too soft on criminals at a time when public opinion is hurting about “insecurity.”

For a minute the whole argument leaves Massa looking anti-establishment, which is exactly what he wants.

Massa has a rival for the presidency in Macri, the centre-right mayor of Buenos Aires. Macri has been chirping an entirely different tune most notably when he called for “social peace” on opening the BA Legislature sessions last week. Fernández de Kirchner, on telling Congress about he telephone conversation with Macri, also joked that it could all lead a surprise political agreement between rivals. But the president underlined that she was only joking. But perhaps what the president meant to say with her little joke was that she would feel more comfortable with Macri winning the presidency than with Massa (or even the moderate Kirchnertite Governor of Buenos Aires province, Daniel Scioli).

Yet Macri was forced to deny that he has a secret political agreement with Fernández de Kirchner after a judge ruled that the mayor should not stand trial on allegations that he was behind a plan to spy on critics and rivals in Buenos Aires City. The judge said that he will continue investigating Macri, but that here is no real evidence yet. But eleven others, including the former head of the Metropolitan Police handpicked by Macri, will stand trial in the espionage scandal.

That he will not have to sit in the dock to face a judge over spying allegations is good news for Macri. But the only thing certain about 2014 is that it is not an election year. Macri has uttered the words “social peace,” signalling that he does not think that he has anything to gain from unrest ahead of the presidential elections. But there are many potential problems that can lead to turbulence, including inflation and salary negotiations following a drastic devaluation of the peso in January.

Fernández de Kirchner and Cabinet ministers met with Argentine Industrial Union (UIA) business leaders at the Olivos residence amid growing concern about an economic slowdown on Friday. According to UIA officials, the president said at the talks that they should not agree to wage hikes if they will then fuel price increases to compensate for costs. But the wage bargaining season has only just opened. Already the national government is facing a wave of strikes by teachers over the entry salary. The negotiation is especially tough in Buenos Aires province. There could be more strikes ahead if the UIA decides to stand its ground in salary talks.

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