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September 20, 2014
Friday, August 8, 2014

Long march through the institutions

One of the most frequent criticisms made of today’s Argentina is the lack of a solid institutional framework after years of being undermined by an excessively presidential democracy. The accusation is not groundless and yet some midweek news items tend to suggest that the institutions can be pretty dysfunctional even when left to their own devices without executive branch interference — in this sense negative comment becomes cheap unless accompanied by bold institutional reform proposals. More specifically, we are talking here about the failings of both the legislative and judicial branches as respectively shown this week by the fiasco of Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich’s monthly report to Congress and the controversial Supreme Court decision to approve the release of the rock group Callejeros (convicted for their role in the 194-death Cromañón blaze almost a decade ago) pending a review of their sentences.

In the case of Congress, the problem perhaps lies not so much in the constitutional architecture as in the lack of serious political parties (whether the classic two-party system or otherwise) to give it substance. The opposition in particular is at fault — they imagine themselves to be asserting legislative dignity with their knee-jerk walkouts (fast becoming a habit), this time to protest the presence of indicted Vice-President Amado Boudou at the Senate helm, but they are in fact abdicating their responsibilities. In this context Boudou becomes a tap whereby the government can turn Congress on and off at will — if the priority is to rush through key legislation ahead of agreements with China, keep the embattled veep at a distance but if the idea is to give Capitanich an easy time preaching to the converted, a readymade opposition repellent lies at hand.

The Callejeros decision has angered many citizens who see it as yet another example of an indulgent court system setting criminals free although the issue is somewhat more complex. Rather than sloppy local law enforcement being at fault, the Supreme Court was scrupulously heeding an article of the San José Inter-American Human Rights Convention binding on Argentina as a signatory which effectively obliges a person to be convicted twice for the sentence to stand. The solutions to prevent impunity thus lie far more in the direction of accelerating a cumbersome justice system than in succumbing to law and order populism. But whatever the branch of government, it is clear that achieving institutional maturity will take rather more than bashing the ruling party, politicians in general or the judiciary.

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