November 21, 2014
Exit agenda for CFK
For The Herald
In the most dramatic hour of the Kirchner era, Senate majority leader Miguel Angel Pichetto looked at Vice-President Julio Cobos straight in the eyes and quoted the Bible. It was Jesus to Judas: “What you are about to do, do quickly,” he said in his final plea of a now historic debate in July 2008 that ended with Cobos’s “betrayal” of the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner government during a high profile conflict with farmers over export duties.
Argentina’s erratic political history until then showed that a defeated government on the wrong side of the public would not stage a political comeback. The following year, to make matters worse, the country’s economy declined to the tune of the global financial crisis and the government’s strongman, Néstor Kirchner, lost a midterm race in Buenos Aires, the country’s largest province.
And then everything changed.
Instead of retreating, the government went on the offensive with a battery of policies that included political reform, media reform, proactive welfare policies, gay marriage, pension reform and the like. When Argentines went to the polling stations again, more than half voted for Fernández de Kirchner’s re-election. Néstor Kirchner had died by then.
And then everything changed again.
Since the big win of 2011, the government became conservative, void of the reform drive that best served its political interests in the past. It paid too much attention to a political war with the country’s large media and lost focus on the economic issues that are now endangering its final months — and ultimately its political future. A sample? Two weeks ago Economy Minister Axel Kicillof spent almost an entire workday in Grupo Clarín’s shareholders’ assembly at a time the economy is far from flourishing.
Transition through December 2015 will not be an easy ride. When Pope Francis received the president at the Vatican on March 17, the two leaders sat under the image of the Virgen Desatanudos (untier of knots). Need any other symbol?
The government is, agenda-wise, on the defensive. January’s devaluation episode still reverberates in the corridors of power and the economic outlook shows some dark clouds for the second half of the year. It is 2008/2009 all again — but does the government still have the drive and the audacity to react?
The president was minimalist when it came to outline the government’s agenda in her State of the Union speech in March. The Cabinet Chief speaks to the press everyday but mostly reacts to the day’s — oft-negative — news. The Economy Minister is too busy doing the things he has to do, also quickly, in order to untie the knots generated by the very government over the last few years (inflation, statistical manipulation, access to foreign credit, rate of exchange). Who is thinking about the government’s exit agenda?
How about the Supreme Court? The country’s top judges have been fairly independent over the years, issuing rulings pro and against the government in a number of hot-potato issues, including media reform. Last week, and for the second time in as many years, the Court ruled against the government in an access to information case filed by an NGO. The Welfare Minister, run by the president’s sister-in-law Alicia Kirchner, had turned down a request filed by the think tank Cippec to access information about the distribution of aid in Argentina. The Ministry argued that making that information public would place the recipients in a situation of vulnerability. The Court said exactly the opposite: hiding the information does.
But as in a 2012 ruling against the PAMI pensioners’ welfare institute, the Court urged Congress to craft information access legislation. Attempts to pass a new law have failed systematically over the last few years, largely due to ruling party reluctance. Access to information is one of those issues in which a government on the way out can turn weakness into strength — and even engross its legacy at a low short-term cost, as it will be up to the next administration to show the numbers. Following renewed opposition pressure on the issue, ruling party Deputy Diana Conti appeared willing to open the debate in the House’s Constitutional Affairs committee she chairs. This year is mostly the last chance: Congress is likely to be shut down in 2015 as the electoral year unfolds.
In 2003, then President Néstor Kirchner signed a decree establishing rules for government agencies to hand over information at the public’s request. The move was amply seen as a step forward but only a first step toward more thorough legislation on the issue. From the citizen’s point of view, having the hard data available is what turns an ungrounded debate into something somewhat meaningful. The entire public discussion over the discretionary way in which the government distributed the roughly one-billion-peso-plus a year it allocates to State advertising in the media only exists thanks to the information the government — eventually, irregularly — publishes. The robber-lynching frenzy that gripped the headlines this week is an example at the opposite end: Argentines are discussing the sensitive crime issue with very little information in hand. In that context, finding out what really is going on requires untying a whole bunch of knots.