Peronism, Courts, and Unions Move Closer to Cristina Kirchner After Public Reappearance

por Federico Poore
The Essential, 16-05-2019

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is back.

Fueled by the government’s own missteps, the former president has enjoyed a week full of positives — first presenting her best-selling book Sinceramente [“Sincerely”] at the packed Buenos Aires International Book Fair and then being at the center of a crucial summit at the Justicialist Party (PJ) headquarters, mere weeks before the June 22 deadline to register election tickets.

The meeting that took place on Tuesday has been the most important step taken by Peronism, the opposition party since 2015, on its way to reclaim power. A photograph sent to the media shows Kirchner surrounded by a wide array of Peronist leaders including union leader Hugo Moyano, governors Rosana Bertone (Tierra del Fuego), Lucía Corpacci (Catamarca), and Gildo Insfrán (Formosa), and even Daniel Scioli and Felipe Solá, two Peronists who have announced their intention to run for president.

Analysts portrayed the photo-op as a symbolic moment: the confirmation that differences between many Peronist leaders have been ironed out and that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) is definitely seeking a wider political base in anticipation of the October presidential elections, where the current senator will play a key role. It was a shocking contrast to a more apathetic picture published that same day depicting a two-man meeting between Macri’s Interior Minister Rogelio Frigerio and Miguel Ángel Pichetto, a veteran Peronist senator who had vowed never to join forces with Cristina again: while Pichetto was alone with Frigerio, Cristina was surrounded by a multitude of allies.

Fernández de Kirchner was at the center of the meeting and spoke for 20 minutes, proclaiming that she was willing to join the biggest possible coalition “in whatever capacity” may be needed.

“We have decided that the Justicialist Party will be the country’s patriotic opposition front this year,” said in turn PJ president José Luis Gioja–this is one of the main proponents of her return to the “official” Peronist party.

The PJ, the official party name of the movement founded by Juan Domingo Perón, is not the same as Peronism: there were moments where candidates from different Peronist factions ran as independents, and it’s no secret that the relationship between the former president and the PJ party structure hasn’t been that good in the past.
Broadening the coalition

One of the key figures now back with Fernández de Kirchner after resolving political disputes with her is Alberto Fernández, who served as Cabinet chief during the tenure of the late Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007).

Fernández is now the campaign chief of Fernández de Kirchner, and has been working to mend fences with many of her former allies. Yesterday, he said the former president would be open to running against other PJ leaders at August’s primaries, and invited third-way proponents Sergio Massa and Roberto Lavagna to be a part of the front.

Lavagna, a former Economy minister who is generally respected in political circles for his role after the 2001 crisis, however, not widely known by the broader society, insists on running unopposed as part of a broad front that includes both Peronists and Radical (UCR) leaders such as Martín Lousteau, the country’s ambassador to the United States until 2017.

Massa, a dissident Peronist who ended up third in the 2015 presidentials and still holds around 10 percent of voting intentions, appeared to decline the offer as he expressed his opposition to what he deemed CFK’s “all or nothing” approach to politics. But leaders close to Lavagna suspect Massa may end up joining her. Clarín’s Eduardo van der Kooy believes the former Tigre mayor could get an offer to run for Buenos Aires province governor within Fernández de Kirchner’s coalition, in exchange for dropping his presidential bid.
Stars lining up

Two other major actors seemed to side with the former president this week.

Mere hours after the summit at the PJ headquarters, the Supreme Court accepted a demand by Fernández de Kirchner’s defense team to reexamine the evidence against her in an investigation into corruption in public works. Analysts and government officials immediately speculated about the possibility of this decision effectively delaying the start of the trial against her, although the Supreme Court clarified today that they would begin next week anyway.

Meanwhile, the CGT umbrella union toughened its stance against the Macri administration and called for a general strike on May 29. The goal is to express the unions’ opposition to “the decadent evolution of the economy.” Official stats revealed that real wages have lost 11 percent of their value over the last 12 months.

La Nación newspaper’s influential columnist Joaquín Morales Solá suggested that the Supreme Court’s decision could be a signal toward the former president as her chances to win in October rise. The strike, meanwhile, could be read as a hint that differences between the more combative factions of the CGT (closer to Cristina Kirchner) and the more cautious union leaders (closer to other politicians such as Massa) are joining forces.

A moderate CFK?

The former president’s appearance at the PJ summit was her second public showing in a week. On May 9, she rocked the TV ratings with a speech at the Buenos Aires International Book Fair, where she showed signs of political moderation and appeared to address undecided voters.

Political allies, TV stars, journalists, and even one of the country’s top media moguls packed out an auditorium as thousands more defied the downpour outside to watch giant screens as she discussed her memoir, the country’s best-selling book in years.

“Cristina succeeds in making everyone talk about her,” said Eduardo Fidanza, head of the Polarquía consultancy firm. “Everyone is forced to express their passions (for loving or hating her) as the population is kept on the edge of their seats waiting for her decision, a master move that will affect the fate of the other contenders.”

Macri wasn’t named even once during Fernández de Kirchner’s Book Fair speech, but his 10-point pact to alleviate concerns about Argentina’s political future was. “No-one can disagree with these statements, but let me tell you something else will be needed. A social contract agreed upon by all Argentines with verifiable, quantifiable, enforceable goals,” the former president said at the enormous La Rural fair grounds owned by the traditionally conservative Argentine Rural Society.

Interestingly, she offered the example of the economic plan carried out by businessman and former Economy minister José Ber Gelbard during Perón’s third administration in 1973. The program’s goal was to bring down high inflationary pressures through negotiations between conflicting economic interests, slowing down the race between salaries and price hikes.

It was signed by businessmen, industrial leaders and union bosses (a “social pact,” as Fernández de Kirchner likes to put it) and lasted for most of the 514 days Gelbard remained in office. The plan successfully addressed inflationary expectations at first but  ignored longer-term fiscal and monetary aspects in its policymaking, leading to its ultimate failure and the implementation of the infamous “Rodrigazo” in 1975 — a ‘shock’ austerity program which led to a sharp reduction in purchasing power in a bid to balance the country’s books. Is this the shape of things to come?

The presidential race in Argentina still remains close. A new poll by the Management & Fit consultancy displayed disappointing figures for Macri’s re-election bid, forecasting that the president will lose in a runoff to either Kirchner or Lavagna. One in five of those polled said they will decide their vote mere days before the elections and a whopping 12 percent of respondents indicated they will decide whom to vote for on election day.