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OP-ED | 23-02-2019 11:05

Editorial: The trial that never was, but still could be

This trial continues to stands as an almost unique case in which the chances of the ex-president being found either guilty or innocent seem equally remote.

Until a few days ago this coming Tuesday was to have been a milestone in recent Argentine history, with ex-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner going on trial. But nonetheless, despite the delay, the corruption issues underlying the charges against her have remained on the front-burner in recent news. For example, the back-and-forth over the alleged extortion of prosecutor Carlos Stornelli – with the lawyer Marcelo d’Alessio an extremely rare case of somebody blackballed by both sides of the grieta chasm, since he is seen as the cutting edge of respectively Stornelli’s attempted extortion and a plot to disqualify the prosecutor in the main trial of Kirchnerite corruption (also throwing in comparisons with the late AMIA prosecutor Alberto Nisman).

Whatever the reasons for the postponement (whether it be a health issue of one of the judges, whether it obeys a purely judicial momentum or whether government strategists are also calculating that it might be smarter to put the heat on Senator Fernández de Kirchner closer to voting day and with the economy under less inflationary pressures), it does not change too much. This trial continues to stands as an almost unique case in which the chances of the ex-president being found either guilty or innocent seem equally remote. The overwhelming weight of accumulated evidence and confessions against the expresident might seem to make any “not guilty” verdict impossible and there may well finally be a conviction surviving endless years of appeal, but it will be a dead letter in any near future – she is politically protected not only by the solidarity of her Upper House colleagues preserving her parliamentary immunity but also by the evident government self-interest in keeping her candidacy alive (given that pundits and pollsters never tire of telling us that Fernández de Kirchner is the only rival against whom President Mauricio Macri could win a run-off).

Even if the trial had gone ahead next Tuesday, perhaps it remains debatable whether it would have been a milestone at all, because historical milestones usually also serve as beacons pointing the way ahead and the signals emitted by this upcoming trial as to this year’s most burning question of the final electoral outcome remain far from clear. The fact that the ex-president retains a third or more of electoral support in the opinion polls seems to doom the corruption issue to irrelevance – when not in simple denial, her prospective voters attach far more importance to economic problems. Yet there can be no doubt that the negative image of Fernández de Kirchner on which the government stakes its future owes much to corruption – it can be no accident that her disapproval ratings spiked so sharply last August, the month of the ‘cuadernos’ corruption exposés. A survey of the reasons for not wanting her back might also turn up other motives such as saturation with the endless speeches over eight years or outrage over mendacious statistics but there can be no question that a huge percentage of Argentines do repudiate corruption.

Turning to the economic sphere, the scenario of stagflation is so dire and so persistent that this election should be hers to lose – but lose it Senator Fernández de Kirchner well might. Both sides of stagflation are fatal for Macri. If growth is the bottom line of economics, three of his four years have seen the economy shrink – inflation guarantees increased impoverishment for the president promising “zero poverty.” Should pension increases (23 percent for the first half of the year) and the next round of collective bargaining revive a battered purchasing-power, inflation might well be the beneficiary rather than growth amid a deep recession. And yet with the main electoral alternative widely seen as the root cause of these woes, there is no clear winner here either – Senator Fernández de Kirchner is going on trial politically even ahead of her courtroom appearances. Somebody will be snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory next spring but who?

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