Argentina Presidential Campaign: Harbinger of Deep Change?

By Federico Merke*

Candidates, left to right: Daniel Scioli, Mauricio Macri, and Sergio Massa. Photo Credits: Cgazzo, Inés Tanoira, and Tigre Municipio, respectively / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Candidates, left to right: Daniel Scioli, Mauricio Macri, and Sergio Massa. Photo Credits: Cgazzo, Inés Tanoira, and Tigre Municipio, respectively / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

As the 2015 presidential race begins to take shape in Argentina, the leading candidates – Daniel Scioli (Frente para la Victoria, FPV), Mauricio Macri (Propuesta Republicana, PRO), and Sergio Massa (dissident Peronist faction Frente Renovador, FR ) – have already begun to outline their visions, but sweeping change doesn’t yet appear on the horizon.  According to early polls, Massa had a strong start in the runup to the August 5 presidential primary, but his popularity has faded, making Scioli and Macri appear to be the real contenders.  Originally considered an unexciting three-way race, it has now become a polarized contest.  It should come as no surprise if campaign speeches start to follow a continuity-versus-change line.

Several developments suggest the presidential race will be close:

  • The fact that Scioli has named Carlos Zannini, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s legal secretary, as his running mate has been a game-changer. The Scioli-Zannini effort to bridge two different factions of the FPV, namely the left-wing Kirchnerites with more business-friendly Peronists, will demand tons of rhetoric.  This ticket casts them as guarantors of continuity: el modelo with some modifications.  Yet in electoral politics, almost everything is about framing – explaining to core and potential supporters how new decisions, which for all their twists and turns, remain faithful to the flags of the party.  This is when Peronism gets real.
  • The Zannini gambit on the Peronist side prompted Macri to follow a pure PRO formula, naming Gabriela Michetti, a former deputy-major of Buenos Aires City, as his vice-presidential candidate. This ticket bets on the idea that most Argentine voters reject the government and want substantial change, while polls suggest that many just opt for moderate adjustments.  Macri’s record indicates that he would propel a more pro-business government than that of Fernández de Kirchner, but his victory would not portend a return to the neoliberal heyday of the Menem years during the 1990s.
  • Sergio Massa, on the other hand, is the plain-speaking candidate of the dissident Peronist faction who’s challenged by the FPV and PRO candidates to duke it out over the issues. Polls indicate that he will draw 15 percent of the votes in the election – making him an important powerbroker.

These early stages of the campaign reflect a recurrent pattern in Argentina’s political landscape: a tendency of ruling party candidates to move away from incumbents with lofty rhetoric but little specificity on the one hand, as opposition candidates issue harsh criticism while at the same time manifesting a reluctance to embrace radical change.  Scioli seems to be going all-out Kirchnerite, but it’s too soon to judge whether the electorate will follow, or whether once in office he would govern as if it were Cristina’s third term.  He and Macri both aspire to grab Massa’s 15 percent, as it could enable them to win the presidency in the first ballot rather than having to contest a second round of voting between the two top vote-getters.  But he hasn’t stated a credible price, and neither Scioli nor Macri seems ready yet to begin bargaining with him.   President Fernández may have avoided plunging the economy into crisis before she steps down, but her successor will definitely have to make tough choices because the country is mired in recession and cannot access foreign investment.  Macri might initially enjoy some leeway to introduce austerity measures that would clean up a good part of the macro-economic mess and reopen Argentina to international capital markets, but even he – like Scioli – is likely to be constrained by embedded Kirchnerism in Congress and in the ministries.  Those in Argentina and beyond who have dreamed that Kirchnerism’s days are numbered will have to wait to see.  Kirchnerism, Argentina’s latest “ism,” has profoundly altered the political and ideological landscape – and, at this early point in the campaign, it appears likely to continue to be part of the country’s political ethos into the future.  It could even turn out to be the dominant force in the administration that takes office in 2016.

July 2, 2015

*Federico Merke directs the Political Science and International Relations Programs at the Universidad de San Andrés in Buenos Aires.

Argentina: Who killed Alberto Nisman?

By Fulton Armstrong

March for Nisman on January 19, 2015, Buenos Aires, Argentain. Photo Credit: jmalievi / flickr / Creative Commons

March for Nisman on January 19, 2015, Buenos Aires, Argentain. Photo Credit: jmalievi / flickr / Creative Commons

Conspiracy theories, accusations, and counteraccusations – usually driven by personal prejudices and political agendas – are not uncommon in Argentina, but the death of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman on January 18 has brought them to a crescendo.  Each theory probably contains a grain or more of truth, but none adequately explains how this respected man, who had spent 10 years investigating the bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires 20 years ago that killed 85 and injured hundreds, wound up dead on his bathroom floor with a bullet in his head just hours before he was to testify before Congress.  Three main scenarios have emerged.

Scenario A:  Nisman was a national hero whose assiduous investigation of the AMIA attack, aided by Argentina’s intelligence agency (SIDE), had conclusively demonstrated an Iranian role in planning and funding Hezbollah’s execution of the bombing.  He was about to request the arrest of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman on charges of colluding with Tehran to cover up Iran’s role – and they or unidentified loyalists ordered his murder to stop him.  Under this scenario, a stealth team working on behalf of the President suborned or sneaked by the 10 body guards placed around Nisman’s apartment to enter and – using a 22-caliber pistol that he’d borrowed from an aide – killed him.

Scenario B:  Nisman was a zealot manipulated by disgruntled SIDE officials and got in over his head in a plot to bring down the President and her government.  Nisman had charged Presidents with coverups before – accusing President Carlos Menem in 2006 of taking a $10 million bribe from Iran to keep investigations from leading to its operatives – and his distaste for CFK was well known.  In December, she fired long-time SIDE chief, Antonio Stiusso, who (according to this theory) sought revenge by helping Nisman make his case.  (Officials close to President made the unsubstantiated and dubious claim that the man who lent Nisman the gun, Diego Lagomarsino, was also an intelligence agent.)  Under this scenario, accepted by very few Argentines, Nisman took his own life.

Scenario C:  In the house of mirrors that is Argentine intelligence, power plays are shrouded in intrigue and hard to divine.  Under this scenario, persistent rumors suggest a struggle between pro- and anti-Stiusso factions in which Prosecutor Nisman was collateral damage, perhaps because of his eagerness to do the dismissed SIDE director’s bidding.  Precious little information is available to label the factions – pro- or anti-CFK, or pro- or anti-Israel, or even pro- or anti-Iran – but there’s a consensus that something was rotten in SIDE.  Eight days after Nisman’s death, CFK announced an effort to dissolve it and set up a replacement agency, and the Congress has already begun to take action.

However much partisans of one perspective or another want to believe these scenarios and their variants, information is too weak or contradictory to give much credibility to any.  CFK and Timerman’s advocacy of trade with Iran – primarily swapping Argentine grain for Iranian oil – and their negotiation on a joint investigation of the bombing weren’t secret.  The exchanges were the subject of numerous public statements since 2013, and a number of Argentine officials, including Stiusso and other senior SIDE officers, were involved in both initiatives.  Interpol officials, moreover, deny that either CFK or Timerman had ever requested suspension of arrest warrants for any of the Iranian suspects.  But the President’s attacks on Nisman before and after his death have been strident and personal – clearly crossing the line for a chief executive talking about a prosecutor – and her public statements, including flip-flopping on whether the death was a suicide, do have a certain odor that create the impression that, as Shakespeare’s Queen Gertrude in Hamlet might say, “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.”  The poisonous political climate in Buenos Aires over el caso Nisman appears likely to drag on – yet another crisis the country can ill afford.

February 9, 2015

Argentina: Yet another political cycle ends in crisis?

By Inés M. Pousadela

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner / Photo credit: Expectativa Online / Foter / CC BY

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner / Photo credit: Expectativa Online / Foter / CC BY

Another ismo born of peronismokirchnerismo, more recently reshaped as cristinismo – is coming to an end in Argentina.  President Cristina Kirchner and her government – reelected in 2011 with 54 percent of the vote – have lost support and burned political capital at an alarming pace. For most of the decade that she and her predecessor and late husband, Néstor Kirchner, have occupied the Casa Rosada, economic growth and favorable external conditions fueled both public expenditures and private consumption. The Kirchners’ administrations (Nestor’s in 2003-2007 and Cristina’s since 2007) renewed state intervention in the economy after the failure of the “neoliberal” experiment led by Carlos Menem (menemismo, another variant of peronismo), and implemented social policies that elicited widespread support from a population that was sympathetic to redistributive initiatives after the economic crisis in the early 2000s. Yet little progress was made in reducing inequality or increasing social cohesion, as was evident when inhabitants of poor suburban areas looted their own neighbors’ small businesses last Christmas. As the economy has weakened, corruption and the absence of efficient and transparent institutions have once again riled the middle class, as shown by both opinion polls and street protests.

The quick social fixes and improvised economics that have long characterized Argentine politics invariably have an expiration date – which in this case seems to be arriving soon.  High inflation – 5 percent in January alone despite repeated attempts at price controls – is eroding wages as the government keeps trying to fund expenditures by printing currency. Amidst inadequate investment and widespread corruption, commuter train crashes have killed dozens of people; massive electricity cuts have taken place over the summer, and gas supplies are expected to fall short as soon as the weather chills. Government denials of any intention to devalue the currency rang increasingly hollow as the official value of the peso dropped 19 percent in January – the biggest devaluation in 12 years. Leaders’ portrayal of the tendency of the population to hoard dollars as an ideological deviation, rather than a rational economic decision, rankled.

As the quality of life of Argentines declines, popular discontent mounts. The prevailing sentiment is one of uncertainty not just about the value of the currency, or even about the durability of policies that are typically announced one day and contradicted, modified or ignored the next. The deeper trepidation in popular feeling is that the future itself has yet again become uncertain.  No one doubts that a cycle is ending; the question – candidly posed even by some of the government’s allies – is how this will all end.  Will conditions become as bad as those that cut short the governments of Raúl Alfonsín in 1989 and Fernando De la Rúa in 2001?  And what comes next?  Unlike those two relatively recent debacles, this time it is the Peronistas who risk association with economic collapse.  With the president increasingly relying on her loyal inner circle, anxious peronista governors, mayors and labor leaders are trying to distance themselves from the Kirchnerista experiment.  Peronista candidates jockeying for position in the 2015 presidential race are as apprehensive as the broader population, while opposition forces lack incentives to cooperate towards developing a credible alternative. Across the spectrum, political leaders appear as clueless as the government regarding how to get out of this most recent mess. Judging from Argentina’s experience, mounting popular frustration is likely to find some expression in the streets as well as at the polls. It is still to be seen which combination of electoral politics and street protest eventually prevails.

Argentina Foreign Policy – National Pride or Domestic Consumption?

Photo by Jonathan Huston

The stridency of Argentina’s foreign policy over the past two years suggests an effort by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to capitalize on elements of authentic nationalism and harness them into a durable political tool at home.  Buenos Aires has dialed up the pressure on the Falklands-Malvinas dispute with the United Kingdom by seeking regional support and calling for a boycott.  The nationalization of the holdings of Spain-based oil giant Repsol has also soured relations with several European states.  Recently, the Argentine government has assailed the impounding of an historical frigate, the Libertad, in Ghana by agents of an investment fund that owns defaulted Argentine sovereign debt, labeling them “vultures.”  Argentina has ramped up criticism of U.S. restrictions on its agricultural exports, as the two countries trade accusations in the World Trade Organization.

The conventional wisdom in Washington has been that President Fernández de Kirchner is picking fights abroad to distract attention from economic and political problems at home.  Following its record $100 billion default in 2001, Argentina remains locked out of most international financial markets despite deals to discount and reschedule much of that debt.  Inflation is high and capital flight is so serious that the government has imposed strict controls on sending dollars out of the country – a measure unpopular with the middle and upper classes.  These problems have taken a toll on the president’s popularity, as have intimations that she might change the Constitution to permit her to run for a third term.

The view from Washington misses a couple key points.  Many of these nationalist moves have been wildly popular – above all the Repsol decision.  To attribute them to President Fernández de Kirchner alone ignores deep feelings in Argentina that the country deserves greater respect than it gets, as well as the fact that since the peso crisis, rejection of the sort of “carnal relations” that President Carlos Menem had with Washington (in his own words) in the 1990s has grown strong.  The current foreign policy orientation harkens to a much longer tradition, from Peronism and beyond.  There is little chance that issues such as the Malvinas or the Libertad are going to make Argentines forget about everyday economic challenges.  Rather, they are a manifestation of an Argentine narrative in which the country is denied its rightful place in international politics and trade – and in which it is being held unfairly in the penalty box for the peso crisis.  The United States support for the billionaire investors and hedge fund managers who bought deeply discounted bonds but are demanding full payment, and Washington’s subsequent vote against loans Buenos Aires needs from international financial institutions, are playing into nationalist themes.  Fernández de Kirchner’s foreign policy rhetoric taps into resentment; she is hardly responsible for creating it.