December 19, 2014
A new coalition prompts new presidential dreams
Welcome to the theatre of non-Peronist dreams. You have been here before. Say in 1999 when the Radical-Frepaso Alliance — remember that? — trounced the Peronist party in presidential elections. Or say it is 1983 when the flourishing of non-Peronist dreams prompted the landslide presidential victory of Raúl Alfonsín, a Radical. Now you are back in 2014. You know how those dreams ended. Alfonsín, trying to navigate a crippling bout of hyperinflation, was forced to cut short his mandate in 1989. The presidential elections that year were won by Carlos Menem, the Peronist who went on to embrace neoconservative economic policies and ruled until 1999. 1999? That’s when the Alliance presidential candidate Fernando de la Rúa won the presidential election. But by 2001 De la Rúa was in the middle of a huge financial meltdown. He did not control the Senate and did not have the support of heavyweight Peronist governors. Late in 2001 De la Rúa quit. That was the last time a non-Peronist ruled Argentina. Please place yourself back in 2014 again. Argentina has been ruled by the Peronist-headed Victory Front coalition since 2003. More specifically Argentina has been run by the late Néstor Kirchner (president between 2003-2007) and now by his widow President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Time for a change? There’s no choice. Fernández de Kirchner according to the Constitution is not allowed to seek a third consecutive term in office. The Victory Front lost the midterm elections last year in all the major districts. One of the messages from that election result was this: voters did not want Fernández de Kirchner to reform the Constitution to seek re-election. CFK’s re-election dream is over.
Now dreaming are a wide selection of presidential hopefuls, including non-Peronist ones. Polls show that the rebel Peronist Sergio Massa, a 42-year-old former Cabinet chief to CFK who has now turned on the Kirchnerites and won the midterm vote in Buenos Aires, is the frontrunner in the presidential race. Yet Massa still counts, broadly speaking, as a “Peronist” even when he is expected to shun the official Peronist party primaries next year. Massa, after bagging that election win against the Kirchnerite machine in the nation’s largest district, is off to a magnificent start. But slowly the non-Peronists, including the Radical Civic Union (UCR), are waking up and have their own set of plans.
So welcome, again, to the theatre of non-Peronist dreams. It’s not even a metaphor. Eight non-Peronist political parties formally launched their brand new coalition, the Frente Amplio (Broad Front)-UNEN, at a theatre in downtown Buenos Aires on Tuesday. The Frente Amplio, its founders would like you to believe, is broad. It is, also broadly speaking, centre-left. Although one of its members, lawmaker Elisa Carrió of the Civic Coalition, has declared that she no longer embraces a specific ideology. The Frente Amplio-UNEN includes the UCR, the Socialist Party, the Civic Coalition, the Proyecto Sur party of Senator Fernando Solanas, the GEN party headed by Buenos Aires province lawmaker Margarita Stolbizer, the leftwing party Libres del Sur, and the Civic Front headed by Córdoba province Senator Luis Juez (plus the “authentic” socialists). All those players crammed into one theatre on Thursday night.
Folk-singer Jairo opened the evening by singing the National Anthem. A video was played. An actor, Luis Brandoni, delivered the only speech of the rally. Then officials from all parties signed a statement of commitment to the new coalition. The officials waved on stage. All eyes were on the five potential presidential candidates: Carrió, Solanas, the Socialist lawmaker Hermes Binner, and two Radicals: Senator Ernesto Sanz and former vice-president Julio Cobos.
The threatical execution of the event went off according to plan. But one question lingers. Will it all end in a disaster like the Alliance? The Radical-Frepaso Alliance collapsed when Carlos Alvarez, the vice-president and leader of Frepaso, quit in 2000 during a corruption scandal over the approval of the labour reform bill in the Senate. Come 2001 De la Rúa himself quit. Non-Peronist politicians are still paying a dire price for the Alliance disaster. The founders of Frente Amplio-UNEN argue that times have changed and they will not suffer the same fate. Some contradictions are glaring. Juez, the senator for Córdoba, for instance is in confrontation with Córdoba City Mayor Ramón Mestre, who is a Radical and supposedly also belongs to Frente Amplio-UNEN.
The five potential presidential hopefuls (Carrió has yet to formally confirm that she will throw her hat in the ring) are also already arguing openly about a potential agreement with Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, the leader of the centre-right party PRO. Macri is pursuing his own non-Peronist presidential dream. Yet he is not a progressive politician. Binner has declared that he “sees differently” from PRO thus apparently ruling out an agreement. But Carrió is eager to broker a deal with PRO that would see Macri take part in a primary with the five other hopefuls. All parties by law will take part in compulsory open primaries, known as PASO, next year ahead of the presidential vote.
Macri and Massa are the self-declared leaders of their relatively small parties and will not see their presidential bids challenged internally. Frente-Amplio UNEN has five presidential contenders. The President’s Victory Front also has at least presidential challengers: Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli (a moderate who has not been endorsed by CFK), the ultra-Kirchnerite Entre Ríos Governor Sergio Urribarri and Transport and Interior Minister Florencio Randazzo.
Fernández de Kirchner is used to handpicking candidates. Yet clearly this time she can’t stop Scioli, who performs well in polls, from running.
Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich ridiculed the launch of Frente Amplio-UNEN saying that they can boast expertise in “hyperinflation” and “drug trafficking” (a reference to the drug-laced corruption scandal hitting the provincial police in Socialist-ruled Santa Fe). Yet Randazzo, who only has an outside chance of winning the primary, has refused to bash his potential allies and has also said that crime is a problem that must be addressed.
It now feels like Fernández de Kirchner is running the clock for her years in office to end calmly next year. The president is also busy trying to protect her legacy. Argentina, she has declared, is a far better country than it was when Kirchner first took office in 2003. But not everybody is buying it and this is a difficult economic year. The peso was devalued about 20 percent in January and the bleeding of Central Bank foreign currency reserves has only stopped this month. The national government hammered out a new nationwide consumer price index in January after the old inflation rate, as measured by the state-run INDEC statistics bureau (taken over by the Kirchnerite administration in 2007), was seen as a fabrication.
Yet INDEC is under pressure again, and its credibility is at stake, because the national government has not released poverty figures for the second part of last year as expected this week. INDEC has officially said that a new inflation rate means that a new poverty rate must also be figured out. Economy Minister Axel Kicillof, speaking to the state-run news agency Télam yesterday, addressed the criticism and said that the notion that poverty is growing after ten years of an economic bonanza is “ridiculous.” Independent poverty rates differ. The Argentine Catholic University (UCA) said that inflation clocks in at 27 percent.
The real problem for the national government is that the uproar over the lacking poverty rate could ruin the credibility of its new nationwide inflation rate at a time when price increases could be slowing down. The national government’s Price Watch programme, which regulates the price of specific products in supermarkets, looked rudimentary at the start. But Domestic Trade Secretary Augusto Costa has conceived a system by which companies must report their costs to the national government. The president is calling the programme a success amid reports that many foodmakers are willing to include more products in the plan because sales are picking up for Price Watch items. The main business groups are still critical of the government’s regulation of the economy.
The so-called Business Convergence Forum on Monday issued a statement saying that businesses can’t be blamed for inflation and calling for a long-term plan to promote investment and deal with the price increases.
The president, without making a direct reference to the forum’s statements, complained that the opposition press was trying to drive home the message that big business opposes the Kirchnerite administration. Fernández de Kirchner called his notion a “virtual” fabrication.
Capitanich, speaking at one of his daily press conferences, was more direct. The Cabinet chief said that, instead of releasing statements, the best thing business leaders could do was “not to increase prices.”