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October 31, 2014
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Electoral anxiety

Swamped? Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli on Friday.
By Martín Gambarotta
Herald Staff

With CFK out of the race, politicians are getting carried away

Warning: 2014 is not an election year. It’s easy to get carried away because President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in office since 2007 and serving out her second consecutive mandate, is not allowed by the Constitution to seek re-election. Soon, if not already, Fernández de Kirchner will be a lame duck. This, understandably, makes the rest of Argentina’s heavyweight politicos very restless. Argentina is full of uncertainties. But one thing is certain. By the end of 2015 the nation will not have Fernández de Kirchner as head of state.

The opposition leaders are rubbing their hands. Many are grinning. And why not? Polls show that it’s unlikely that Fernández de Kirchner will be able to perform the feat of anointing a loyal presidential candidate capable of winning the election and continuing with her policies. But the lame duck effect is also filling with anxiety the Peronist party, which is by far the biggest member of the Kirchnerite Victory Front coalition.

Engineering a transition has always been difficult for an outgoing president in Argentina. This time it is no different. The Peronist party (also known by its initials in Spanish: PJ) held a convention to vote in a new executive leadership on Friday.

Yawn. But yawn at your own risk. Party politics are boring. Polls show that voters are not interested in party politics. But it is party politics that has kept Argentina’s democracy ticking since 1983. The credibility of the Peronist party and the Radical party is not what it used to be. But the Peronists and the Radicals, even while enduring many rifts, still control mighty party machines nationwide.

The Peronist party machine, at the service of the Kirchnerite Victory Front, was useless last year in all the major districts. The Victory Front lost in Buenos Aires province against Sergio Massa, a rebel Peronist who defied the president’s authority and that of the PJ. Massa is now a leading opposition presidential hopeful, according to polls. But this doesn’t mean to say that the Peronist party, without Massa and other dissidents now swaying to the right of centre, is not trying to get its act together to put up a fight in 2015.

Friday’s PJ convention named Jujuy Governor Eduardo Fellner as party chairman. There’s a lot you can read into the new party leadership, which presumably was selected with the president’s blessing. Fellner is not a presidential hopeful. Yet on Friday the party also named a number of “honorary” vice-presidents. All those ad hoc vice-presidents are also considered potential Peronist presidential hopefuls: Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli, Transport and Interior Minister Florencio Randazzo, Senator Aníbal Fernández, Defence Minister Agustín Rossi, Salta Governor Juan Manuel Urtubey, Entre Ríos Governor Sergio Urribarri and Lower House Speaker Julián Domínguez.

One first look at the leadership could tell you that Fernández de Kirchner is not likely to endorse a Victory Front presidential hopeful ahead of next year’s compulsory presidential primaries for all political parties (known as PASO and expected to take place in August). CFK could remain neutral as the Victory Front goes to the PASO polls next year. There’s a limit to the neutrality. The president is clearly also not endorsing Scioli, the outgoing Peronist party chairman and a leading Kirchnerite presidential candidate.

Take a second look at the PJ leadership and Scioli, a moderate who preaches consensus with his rivals while still staying loyal to the president, looks a bit swamped suddenly surrounded by all those other hopefuls.

Fellner is seconded by executive vice-presidents, not just symbolic ones. Those PJ vice-president’s include Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich and lawmaker Eduardo De Pedro, a leader of the Kirchnerite youth wing La Cámpora. Scioli has not been endorsed. But neither has he been shunned. There is no stopping Scioli from seeking the Victory Front’s presidential nomination next year.

This new PJ, under Fellner’s neutral helm, will not go down in history if Massa emerges as the winner of next year’s presidential contest.

The new party leadership will be held directly responsible for defeat next year and Massa, who is backed by many Peronist mayors from Greater Buenos Aires and beyond, could eventually seize control of the old party machine once in office. But all that has not happened just yet.

Massa’s problem is that he will face a tougher challenge next year from the rest of the opposition, including the presidential bid of Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, the leader of the centre-right party PRO.

Last year Macri’s PRO did not field congressional candidates in Buenos Aires province so as not to hamper Massa’s chances of defeating the Victory Front. Opposition leaders back in 2013, including Macri, said they expected Fernández de Kirchner to make a move to reform the Constitution to seek a new term in office if the Victory Front won in Buenos Aires province. The Victory Front lost.

Massa and Macri will be rival presidential candidates and they will be trying to woo the same centre-right voters. Also in the race is the centrist coalition Frente Amplio-UNEN (it includes the Socialist Party, the Radical Party, Elisa Carrió’s Civic Coalition, the leftwing group Libres del Sur and four other political parties).

Fernández de Kirchner has been portrayed as a ruthless politician who thrives in confrontation. Opposition leaders, including Massa who served as her Cabinet chief for a year, have complained that the president doesn’t know the meaning of the word consensus and shuns dialogue with her political rivals.

Yet on Tuesday Fernández de Kirchner and Macri appeared together at the opening of Facebook offices in Buenos Aires City. The body language was awkward and Macri was stern-faced as the president took centre stage. Fernández de Kirchner at times opts to show a softer side and she spoke to reporters at the Facebook opening. The president, taking a question from a Herald reporter, said that she had met in private with Macri at the Olivos residence in April to discuss the issue of grain export duties.

Macri was surprised because the meeting was confidential. Massa’s camp quickly alleged a “pact” between Fernández de Kirchner, who has praised PRO (and Macri) for its political honesty in embracing centre-right policies.

It’s kind of amusing to see the opposition, which has called for consensus and dialogue, now talking of a pact between Fernández de Kirchner and Macri. But Macri yesterday decided not to attend a ceremony to unveil a monument to honour the Catholic priest and activist Carlos Mujica, who was shot dead by a right-wing death squad in 1974.

Macri now fears that the anti-Kirchnerite vote will escape him if he gets too close to Fernández de Kirchner. But please rewind to the start of this. Warning: this is not an election year. The opposition wishes it was. But it isn’t.

The situation is unusual because it looks like Fernández de Kirchner, unlike other presidents before her, will see out her mandate next year. There will be a transition.

The president continues to make decisions. Fernández de Kirchner on Wednesday named the folk-singer Teresa Parodi as Culture minister. The portfolio was especially upgraded for Parodi, a human rights activist, who takes over from outgoing Culture Secretary Jorge Coscia, a filmmaker. Speculation was rife that Coscia was axed because questions about the financial management of his portfolio were leaked to the press.

The reshuffle could also be a sign that Fernández de Kirchner’s closing year in office, in sluggish economic times, could be dominated by symbolic acts to enhance her legacy.

The Kirchnerite administration threw a spectacular celebration to mark Argentina’s 200th birthday in 2010. The president could opt for more threatrics as she gets ready to hand over power next year. The argument about the Kirchnerite decade is still raging in Argentina. Fernández de Kirchner’s latest take is that Argentina now is in far better shape than it was in 2003 when Néstor Kirchner, the president’s late husband and predecessor, was sworn in as head of state. The opposition and a large part of the electorate thinks differently. But with 2015 relatively far away, only CFK now seems not to be in a huff of a hurry.

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