Alberto Fernández and Cristina Kichner in their inauguration day, in December 2019. Photo: Frente Todos

In Argentina, Peronism strikes again: Fernández appoints new cabinet and gives more power to Cristina

President Alberto Fernández, in addition to being intimidated by his deputy, has to deal with a negative projection for the November elections

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“We Peronists are like cats. People who hear our shouting think we’re fighting. Nothing like that… we’re reproducing!” This phrase about high-decibel feline copulations was routinely uttered by President Juan Domingo Perón at the end of his life, during his exile in Madrid —accompanied by a mischievous smile—whenever he wanted to downplay political differences. This Peronist axiom has been used intensively in recent decades, during which former Peronist allies have been transformed into enemies to be, later on, reconciled with the sole aim of conquering (or regaining) power.

There is currently no such copula with meows of rejoicing. Now, Peronists are fighting, for the first time, in public and amplifying their differences through social media. And to complicate the situation, the war is being waged between the two most powerful figures in the country: President Alberto Fernández and Vice President Cristina Kirchner. The backdrop to this confrontation, which puts Argentine governability at significant risk, was the government’s defeat in the primary elections last Sunday, September 12th.

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When the counting of votes began to indicate that defeat would come, Fernández made a brief speech at the election’s campaign headquarters to deliver a mea culpa, admitting that he had been wrong. “Evidently, something didn’t go as it should,” he said.

In the following hours, Cristina demanded from Fernández a renewal of the cabinet of ministers. The vice president wanted the removal of the “Albertist” ministers. The “Cristinist” ministers would stay, and she would put more of her allies in the government. In other words, “Albertism” would make more room for “Cristinism.”

Fernández said he would only consider a ministerial reform after the country’s Parliamentary November Elections. Cristina insisted. The president then said that there was no way he would do that at this time.

Cristina didn’t digest the denials of his demands well.

On Wednesday (15), the “Cristinist” ministers publicly announced that they were making their resignations available to the president. A kind of message like “we’re leaving…if you want us to stay and allow you to actually govern, you have to beg and give more ministries to us.” Their move was an ultimatum to the president to fit in and comply with the vice president’s orders.

The next day, Fernández said via social networks that “government management will continue to be developed in the way” he “deems convenient,” stressing that he was actually elected to do that. Fernández also declared that he would not be forced to do anything that he didn’t want to do.

Cristina responded, but through her faithful Kirchnerist deputy Fernanda Vallejos. In two long WhatsApp audios, the parliamentarian made a list of criticisms of Fernandez. She called the president a squatter (in reference to the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace), besides “blind and deaf.” Vallejos also stated that the president was a “smug” and that he was only at the Presidency thanks to Cristina’s votes.

The audios’ content infuriated President Fernández, who hours later said he would not accept pressure of any kind.

Simultaneously, Peronist leaders were trying to put in hot rags. A pale and remote possibility of smoking the peace pipe was dawning when Cristina torpedoed that chance by publishing a huge letter on social media in which she intensely criticized the president and his trusted advisors.

Cristina stated that she was the one who had chosen him to be the presidential candidate (and not the other way around). She also said Fernández would not have heeded her warnings about the economic crisis. In addition, she fired an accusation that practically classifies Fernández as a heretic for Peronism, claiming that Fernández is making a financial adjustment.

The vice president also stated that she would not tolerate what she called “press operations against her,” allegedly conducted by Fernández’s aides.

The possible outcomes until last Friday were these:

1 – Fernández gives in to bullying and accepts Cristina’s demands, dismissing “Albertist” ministers and making room for more “Cristinists” in the cabinet. Consequences: total weekness display from Fernández. He would be serving the enemy’s interests, an enemy who considers such a move a political band-aid and who will not hesitate to attack him again when the opportunity presents itself.

2 – Fernández resists, accepts the resignations of Cristina’s ministers, and tries to make an “Albertist” government. Consequences: Fernández also does badly in this scenario. He is left without enough parliamentarians to govern the country.

3 – Fernández removes some “Albertist” ministers and dismisses some “Cristinists” too. Each side would sacrifice some collaborators to replace them with new ministers from each group. Together, they would try to avert a catastrophe in November’s parliamentary elections. Consequences: The fight, in this way, would be postponed until after the polls.

4 – Fernández resigns after realizing that he will not be able to govern. In this scenario he would transform – ipsis litteris – into a kind of Queen of England, with the symbolism of being the Head of State but without any real power. But the resignation is a challenging scenario to occur under the current circumstances (and, I emphasize, under the current events of the publication of this column). The only hypothesis for the resignation would be due to health problems, something that does not currently exists…

Friday night turnaround

Let’s go back to Friday (17) to discuss the actual scenario: during the day President Fernández desperately tried to get emphatic support from the Peronist governors, who are the true “owners” of the interior of the country.

He issued invitations for several of them to consider his cabinet ministries. However, the answer was no. The governors were afraid. Participating in a government that would have to face Cristina Kirchner and the opposition at the same time would be a kamikaze mission.

Just like the French-English allied troops in Dunkirk, Fernández was cornered. Unlike the Allies, that managed to be rescued by the British fleet and continued the fight, the Argentine president lived a Dunkirk position without rescue. He had to surrender.

That night, the government announced the formation of a new cabinet of ministers.

All “Christian” ministers stayed. In other words, Fernández will have to deal with the ministers who challenged him. Part of the “Albertist” ministers was dismissed. And in the vacancies, Cristina put more of hers.

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The new chief of staff will be Juan Manzur, governor of Tucumán, a caudillo from northern Argentina who quickly became a multimillionaire after rising to the office. In the middle of the week, Cristina said publicly that she had told Fernández that Manzur would have to be her new chief of staff. No sooner said than done. The new minister has an excellent relationship with the “barones del conurbano” (barons of disturbance), the name of the mayors of the Peronist municipalities of Greater Buenos Aires. Furthermore, he would be the interlocutor with the Peronist governors.

Manzur has a characteristic that annoys several Argentine progressive sectors: he is “pro-life”, and viscerally against the legalization of abortion. While governor years ago, he barred the legal abortion of an eleven-year-old girl who had been raped in Tucumán.

Another “Christian” will be Julián Domínguez, Cristina’s former minister, who will hold the Agriculture portfolio (and also has strong ties with the Catholic Church).

Among other names in the new cabinet is Aníbal Fernández (who is not related to the president), who was the Kirchners’ minister of the interior, minister of justice, secretary-general of Cristina’s presidency, as well as chief of staff of the president itself. A vast Christian curriculum.

The “Albertist” Minister of Economy Martín Guzmán survived in his post. But, he remains under pressure. Cristina wants more public spending, as November elections grow near.

It will be a transitional ministry, which the government will try to reach until the parliamentary elections in November. Everything indicates that after the vote, whether with a victory or a defeat, there will be a new ministerial reform. And, possibly, in this new configuration, Fernández will have even less power, since – hypothetically – he would have to resign more of his “Albertist” ministers.

Is there any possibility that Cristina will say a definitive goodbye to Fernández? Not exactly – that’s why this is not alternative number 5. Cristina could withdraw her ministers from Fernández’s cabinet and mobilize her deputies and senators to make the president’s life a Dantesque hell. However, she would never leave the vice presidency, as she would lose her privileged jurisdiction and could be arrested for any of the many corruption cases she is being prosecuted for.

Anyway, the Argentines are aboard a political Titanic. Politicians, as always, will save themselves because they have lifeguards at their disposal. But the rest of the population is, well, like Leonardo DiCaprio.

How did Argentina get here? Let’s see:

The VP who chose the President

In April 2019, former president and senator Cristina Kirchner announced that her candidate for president would be her former chief of staff, Alberto Fernández, with whom she had disagreements since 2009. Thus, for the first time in Argentine history, the vice candidate chose the candidate for president.

In the ten years they were fighting, Fernández called Cristina’s administration a “deplorable government.” In return, in that period of confrontation, various sectors of Kirchnerism accused Fernández of “traitor,” “sold to the oligarchy,” “boot-licking of the United States,” and “cipayo” (a vintage epithet still used by sectors of Kirchnerism).

But why was Cristina not the presidential candidate in 2019?

The former president had a high rejection in polls. She couldn’t get past the hardcore of 30% to 35% of the electorate. For that reason, she needed “new packaging.” The solution was to put the “moderate” Alberto Fernández in the main post. Cristina controlled the party structure. Fernández not. Fernández, alone, would not win a presidential race. But he could provide the additional votes (especially from the non-Kirchnerist Peronist sectors) to win. And so it was.

It is not the first, nor the last time that Fernández will be bullied

In the first weeks of government, Cristina’s allies began to put pressure on Fernández. First, they asked the government to “release” former members of the Kirchner government imprisoned for corruption. Afterward, they criticized the moments in which Fernández hesitated to give explicit support to the regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua.

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But then the COVID-19 pandemic came, and criticism was suspended for a while. Fernández beckoned the opposition to take consensual measures to fight the plague. The approach between him and the mayor of Buenos Aires, the opponent Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, irritated Cristina. And it also angered Larreta’s former boss, former president Maurício Macri. But Fernández reached 75% popularity, and Kirchnerism chose to remain silent.

But it was only for a while. When widespread irritation at the persistence of quarantine measures began, Kirchnerism gradually resumed criticism of Fernández; the vast majority made indirectly.

At the beginning of the second half of 2020, Fernández launched negotiations with Pfizer to purchase vaccines against the novel coronavirus. Everything indicated that the vaccines would arrive between the end of November and December, leading Argentina to the Latin American pole position in the vaccination.

Cristina’s son Máximo Kirchner, however, halted negotiations with Pfizer in the Cámara Baja (Argentina’s House of Representatives). The Kirchners considered that Argentina needed to negotiate primarily with Russia and China for the purchase of vaccines. The agreement with Pfizer was canceled, the government signed a purchase contract with the Russians, and Moscow delayed deliveries, which is why, although it started the vaccination campaign on December 29, Argentina has only managed to fully vaccinate 40% of its population so far.

In October last year, Cristina said that “there are officials (ministers) who don’t work.” A sign to Fernández to change his cabinet. But the president did not relent. As the months went by, Cristina placed more and more “allies in the second and third echelon of government. The cold war that was taking place within the government turned into a “hot war” this week, after the electoral defeat of the primaries.

Mandatory primaries: The defeat that unleashed the internal crisis of Peronism

Last Sunday, September 12, the Argentines went to the polls to vote in the party primaries. The government of President Alberto Fernández was confident. Its leadership (and also its militancy) believed in the victory of Peronism-Kirchnerism.

In the first hour after the polls closed, several Peronist leaders were celebrating, live on TV, their victory by dancing and singing at the campaign’s headquarters in the Buenos Aires district of Chacarita.

The government already considered losing in some customarily anti-Peronist districts, such as the federal capital, Buenos Aires. But he was sure he would win in the province of Buenos Aires, which concentrates 38% of the country’s population.

They did not expect what analysts termed an “electoral tsunami,” that is, an unprecedented defeat in this century. Not even the opposition parties – which had campaigned for a few days and with scant funds – could not believe in the magnitude of the government’s defeat.

The pre-candidates of the opposition coalition “Juntos por el Cambio,” of center and center-right groups, won 40.02% of the votes. But the pre-candidates of Peronism “Frente de Todos” got 31.03%. It’s a sharp drop compared to the previous primary election of 2019 when Peronism had 47% of votes.

The government was defeated in its strongholds, like the province of Buenos Aires. And Vice President Cristina Kirchner herself suffered a defeat in her family fief, the province of Santa Cruz, ruled by Kirchnerism with an iron hand since 1983.

This was one of the worst results in the history of Peronism. If the real elections (the parliamentary elections in November) have similar results, Peronism will lose the Senate for the first time since 1983.

The control of Cámara Alta, the Argentine Congress, for nearly four decades uninterruptedly enabled Peronism to hinder several bills from the rival governments of Raúl Alfonsín (1983-89), Fernando De la Rúa (1999-2001), and Maurício Macri ( 2015-19).

If these primary results are repeated, Peronism-Kirchnerism will become the second force in the Lower House.

This combination of factors (in addition to a fertile ground for more protests against the government) promises to complicate the governability of Fernández, who has not yet completed half of his term. In this virtual scenario of lack of parliamentary majority, the president will have to do something Peronism has never done: negotiate broadly with the opposition. In addition, he will also have to deal with the internal Peronist crisis that is plaguing him.

Inflation, pandemic, and controvert birthday

In the same week of the defeat in the primaries, bad economic news also helped to shake the government: a 2.5% inflation in August, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Census (Indec).

Earlier this year, the government had predicted that inflation in 2021 would be 29%. But in just these first eight months, inflation has already surpassed this “optimistic” target, reaching 32.3%.

In fact, the rise in prices was one of the main factors behind the government’s defeat in the primaries.

Fernández has not taken any concrete steps to try to halt the escalation of inflation. Indeed, since the turn of the century, no government has done anything well planned to face this matter, always resorting desperately to a price freeze (or, in a lighter version, a temporary price agreement).

Inflation accumulated in the first 21 months of President Fernández’s government is 87.4%. This proportion exceeds the inflation accumulated in the first 21 months of the governments of former president Maurício Macri (67.1%) and Cristina Kirchner (47.5%), according to a survey by Fundación Libertad y Progreso.

This occurs in a scenario in which poverty, according to the latest indexes related to the second half of last year, is 42%. And of this total, 10.5% are considered indigent, that is, people who cannot eat regularly on a daily basis. The backdrop to the crisis is a 9.9% drop in GDP last year.

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The president’s image had also suffered a persistent erosion since the second half of last year as he changed his political style. Fernández was known for his calm manner, without the typical shouting and kicking of the Kirchners. But since the end of last year, the decibels of his speeches have been increasing. Furthermore, he left aside the conciliatory approach with the opposition in the first months.

The situation was terrible, and it got worse with the release, two months ago, of the photos of the birthday of the first lady, Fabíola Yáñez, taken on July 14 of last year, when the country was suffering the first peak of contagions and deaths due to COVID-19.

The photo of Fabiola Yañez’s birthday in Olivos that sparked the scandal. Photo: unknown author.

The images showed a dozen people crowded into the presidential residence in Olivos without social distance measures and masks. At the time, social gatherings were prohibited for ordinary citizens. The restrictions had been enacted by President Fernández himself. That is, the party host violated his own decree.

First, the government denied the authenticity of the images, claiming that it was a montage. Then, later on, it admitted the situation but tried to downplay the matter. Finally, and given the risk of new photos appearing, the government itself released more images—an attempt to control the damage.

Fernández declared that as a “voluntary repair,” he would donate “a part” of his salary to the Instituto Malbrán (a prestigious medical institution). He then stated that “since there were no contagions, there is no criminal offense.” The matter had a harmful impact on public opinion. And Fernández’s phrase, even worse, generated indignation.

Translated by Fabiane Ziolla Menezes