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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 23-11-2019 11:01

In Néstor’s footsteps

Argentina has a history of presidents who campaigned doing one thing and then ended up doing another. Some observers say the same thing may happen with Fernández.

xOn December 10, debt-ridden Argentina will have a new president: Alberto Fernández.

He is the product of a united Peronist coalition pulled out of a top hat in May by former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Currently all the speculation centres on what kind of president Alberto Fernández will be – and who will make up his Cabinet. It’s also about what kind of vice-president Fernández de Kirchner will make. CFK’s surprise move back in May included relegating herself to the position of running-mate.

Argentina has a history of presidents who campaigned doing one thing and then ended up doing another. Some observers say the same thing may happen with Fernández, who won with the backing of Kirchnerite voters plus Peronist voters, like Sergio Massa, who had faced off electorally speaking with Fernández de Kirchner, starting in 2013.

The spin-doctors in Macri’s camp, especially Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña, should be kicking themselves. They lost the election 48-40 percent on October 27 in the first round after failing to fathom the dimension of the Peronist unity spawned earlier this year. Alberto Fernández basically won the election with a landslide victory in Greater Buenos Aires, the sprawling working-class belt that surrounds Argentina’s capital. So why should the new president go against the expectations of his electoral base in that Kirchnerite bastion?

Alberto Fernández and Fernández de Kirchner met during the week to discuss the new Cabinet. What emerged is that the president-elect will dominate the Cabinet. The former president will control Congress, thanks to an agreement with her former foe, Massa.

Massa will be the new lower house speaker. Máximo Kirchner, the former president’s son, will reportedly be the caucus leader in the Chamber of Deputies, which the new ruling coalition will not control. So if you must look ahead to the future, it looks like the Peronist unity we’re witnessing hinges on Alberto, Massa and Máximo. Looking further ahead Massa and Máximo could be imagining they have a bright political future together. Where does that leave Alberto Fernández? It leaves him in Government House, consulting his policies with Fernández de Kirchner, her son and Massa.

The Peronist coalition is close to controlling the Senate, which will be overseen by Fernández de Kirchner (even when there are struggles to unite a single Peronist caucus in the upper house). In this context don’t expect the new president to shift radically to neoconservative policies like Carlos Menem, who was also a Peronist, did when he won the presidency in 1989.

Still, Alberto Fernández is clearly the chief executive officer here. He has held telephone conversations with the new head of the International Monetary Fund, presided over a gathering to organise a plan to fight hunger, and is also in the process of assembling a council to hammer out a social pact, which could be chaired by former economy minister Roberto Lavagna (who finished a distant third in the recent presidential vote).

Fernández, in some way, knows what he’s walking into. The new head of state served as Cabinet chief during Néstor Kirchner’s presidency in 2003-2007. The late leader tried to pragmatically pull Argentina out of a huge financial crisis, but without swallowing neoliberal economic policies along the way. Already there are signs that Alberto Fernández – who before his anointing was a key backroom Peronist party operative – will try to emulate his former boss.

For instance the president-elect, reportedly irking Pope Francis in the process, has confirmed he intends to table a bill to decriminalise abortion upon taking office. Kirchner, as a lawmaker, famously threw his weight behind the widely-supported samesex marriage bill in 2010 – when Cristina was in the Casa Rosada.

Outgoing President Mauricio Macri tabled an abortion bill in 2018 but the landmark legislation was voted down in the Senate. The PRO leader was technically neutral as the abortion bill debate raged, but he clearly came out against legalisation during the presidential campaign, in a bid to shore up conservative votes.

Now Macri’s dithering on the issue of abortion has handed Alberto Fernández a chance, on a plate, to champion a key feminist cause in what could be a defining moment right at the start of his presidency. It’s an issue that could shift attention away from economic hardships.

Why did Macri even send the abortion bill to Congress in the first place? That’s a question history will have to answer. But right here and now, the abortion issue has thrown the current administration into disarray. The latest fumble involves Adolfo Rubinstein, Macri’s health secretary. He issued a resolution to officialise a procedure for non-punishable abortions in state-run institutions, purportedly without reporting it to his superiors beforehand. Rubinstein’s decision outraged the conservative wing of Macri’s coalition. (At the time this column was being written the president had decided to scrap the resolution on the non-punishable abortion protocol.)

This latest sloppy row in the ruling coalition could tarnish the president’s departure. Macri has planned a farewell demonstration on December 7, but the negative headlines are about exactly why Macri has chosen to deal so publicly with an internal spat about abortion, so close to the end of his mandate. The president, who garnered 10 million votes in October, wishes to become the leader of the opposition. But with gaffes like these he risks turning himself into the leader of the opposition against himself.

As things now stand, the new president will sponsor the approval of a bill to decriminalise abortion, with Macri’s sloppy handling of the issue still fresh in the memory of voters. The landscape will shift dramatically on December 10 with Alberto Fernández in office (and the expected demonstration).

Already the economic tone is changing too. The Chamber of Deputies has approved the first reading of bills to regulate rents and the display of products in supermarkets.

The handover is creeping closer.

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Martín Gambarotta

Martín Gambarotta

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