Argentina: Fragile truce in the presidential palace

Status: 04.03.2023 09:37 am

Argentina will elect a new president in six months. It is unclear whether incumbent Fernandez will run again. This has to do with his weak record – and with unsettled ambitions of his vice president.

By Matthias Ebert, ARD Studio Rio de Janeiro

When the political year in Argentina is heralded with the reopening of Congress after the holiday season, President Alberto Fernandez stands in front of the MPs in a blue suit with a light blue tie and forms his fingers in the victory sign. Vice President Cristina Kirchner laughs next to him.

The apparent unity between the two, as people in Argentina know, cannot be taken for granted at the moment. Therefore, all those listening are eagerly awaiting what Fernandez would say about the recent corruption verdicts against Kirchner. And much more: What would he reveal about his own future?

No office bonus

Elections are due in October and things are not looking good for left-wing incumbent Fernandez. His poll numbers are abysmal, partly because he hasn’t managed to stimulate the economy and get inflation under control since 2019. In 2022 it was around 100 percent.

In addition, he was unable to make a name for himself as a doer during the corona pandemic. Instead, he had celebrated his wife’s birthday with a group of friends at the presidential palace, while all Argentines were in strict domestic isolation. The result: a fine of 25,000 euros.

Linguistically, Fernandez kept making mistakes. For example, when he said at a press conference that Argentines came from Europe and Brazilians from the jungle. The diplomatic upset in the important neighboring country to the north followed immediately.

demonstrative support

Because Fernandez has largely gambled away his political capital in Argentina, observers were curious how he would react to Vice President Kirchner, who was also politically ailing.

At the opening of the congress, Fernandez commented on the corruption verdict against Kirchner, who was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud in December because she is said to have channeled money into her own pocket in public tenders in the south of the country. She currently enjoys immunity as Vice President.

To the surprise of many parliamentarians, Fernandez clearly supported Kirchner. The proceedings against them are a farce and Kirchner is a “victim of persecution” by a partisan judiciary. With this help for his deputy, Fernandez lets the numerous disputes within his left-wing alliance fade into the background for the time being.

Kirchner on hold?

In any case, he only has a chance of re-election if Kirchner stands behind him again – as he did four years ago – and mobilizes her many supporters on the street. However, many of them hope that their leader will run for office herself.

When Brazilian President Lula da Silva won the election against his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro last year, prominent “Kirchneristas” were among the first to well-wisher on election night and quickly put a cap on Lula’s head. On it the lettering “Cristina 2023”. A reference to Kirchner’s own presidential campaign?

challenge to the left

The race is more unmanageable than ever before. Conservative opposition candidates are currently seen as having the best chances. Should Argentina’s left lose the election, it could be the beginning of a new political trend in South America.

At the moment it is mainly left-wing party alliances that govern on the continent. The recent election victories of Gustavo Petro in Colombia, Gabriel Boric in Chile and Lula da Silva in Brazil were also due to social dissatisfaction after the difficult Corona years.

Now many of these governments are preoccupied with managing internal conflicts. While Chile’s President Boric wants to complete the sluggish constitutional process, Colombia’s Petro is negotiating with the guerrilla ELN to end the armed struggle. In addition to the issue of environmental protection, Lula is confronted with millions of dissatisfied Bolsonaro voters.

Looking for a way out of the financial dilemma

Now the first of the governing left-wing alliances in Argentina could be voted out. Since taking office in 2019, Fernandez has been looking for ways to reduce his country’s debt – or at least postpone repayment of the multi-billion dollar IMF loan. His predecessor, the conservative Mauricio Macri, asked the International Monetary Fund to do this in order to prevent financial difficulties on the Rio de la Plata.

But there has been a dispute between Fernandez and Kirchner for years as to where the money for the repayment should come from. A way out of the financial dilemma is not in sight. Even before the pandemic, Argentina’s economy was suffering from a high number of public employees, excessive spending and low government income. This structural problem has not yet been solved.

The pressure from the IMF is increasing

It is true that the pressure from the IMF is increasing to tackle changes – for example in the case of subsidies for electricity and public transport. But Fernandez’s left-wing government would have to fear that social tensions would increase and mass demonstrations, organized by the traditionally strong trade unions, would paralyze the country if cuts were made harder.

When he appeared before Congress, he left open whether the ailing Fernandez would start again in October. Without Kirchner’s support it would probably not be possible. But she may have her own plans for a candidacy. So far there has been a kind of truce among the ruling left. But the political tensions could soon come to light.

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