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Government sees biggest opposition rally since inauguration

Judicial reform, lockdown, crime and economic interventionism all targetted

By | [email protected] | August 20, 2020 1:48pm


Politics in Argentina happen just as much in the streets as in Congress or the voting booth. And with pessimism reigning, an increasingly deteriorated economy and continued political polarization, President Alberto Fernández is already facing large angry mobilizations against his administration.

Monday’s march was not the first protesting his government, but it was certainly the largest. The self-imposed social distancing among many of those in attendance mean comparisons with past demonstrations are not the easiest, with drivers occupying hundreds of meters across Buenos Aires’ 9 de Julio Avenue and its surroundings, as well as thousands on foot near the Obelisk and in dozens of key landmarks and intersections across the country careful of not moving too close to each other.

But the contingent was broader than in past anti-lockdown protests, and the slogans and placards were more diverse. This time, protests weren’t merely complaining about the strength of the COVID-19 social isolation measures, which have kept hundreds of restaurants, hotels and shopping centers closed amid a brutal economic recession. Perhaps even stronger were the calls against the government’s push for a judicial reform that could open the door to changes in the Supreme Court, seen by many as a way to protect VP Cristina Kirchner from cases against her circle in the courthouses. Crime, taxes, state economic intervention, police abuse and even vaccination policies were also among the reasons cited by protesters.

The nature of the protests

Although the fraction of the opposition coalition led by Mauricio Macri openly backed the protests, the lack of a unified motto points to a rising — but still not fully organized — social discontent behind the demonstrations.

In some respects, the protests could be compared to those against Cristina Fernández de Kirchner during her time as president, even if they are still not as massive. “The current marches seem to have the same social extraction as those against Cristina Kirchner, and are triggered by the same type of events: a government move against the farming sector or the Judicial branch,” political scientist Andrés Malamud told The Essential.

Indeed, the previous rally against the government came after the failed attempt to nationalize the bankrupt grain exporting firm Vicentin which, although smaller in scale, brought back memories of the first large protests against Cristina Kirchner in 2008 after a hike on grain export duties.

After the re-election of Fernández de Kirchner in 2011, the focus of those protests shifted to rumors about constitutional reform attempts to get her re-elected again in 2015, as well as a failed push to change the way in which judicial authorities were elected in 2013. In her last year in office, the spotlight turned to the death of Prosecutor Alberto Nisman, for which many believed Fernández de Kirchner was to blame.

Macri, who ultimately emerged as a unifying figure representing those protesters in the 2015 election, backed them again this time around speaking from his European retreat. “I am proud of the thousands of Argentines that came out to the streets to put an end to fear and abuse, and say yes to work, respect and freedom”, Macri said. His close ally and former Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, who was present with the crowd, was perhaps the biggest political leader in the demonstration.

Will a new right emerge?

But not everyone within the opposition was backing the protest, and not all protestors identified with the politics of Macri’s 4-year tenure either.

Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta — who has risen to national notoriety thanks to his bi-monthly public appearances next to President Alberto Fernández and BA Province Governor Axel Kicillof to discuss the response to the pandemic — distanced himself from the protesters, saying that he would “not attend any rally during the lockdown” and that he “respects the right” to do so, but that if anyone from his (and Macri’s) PRO party attended it would be “a personal decision,” and not a response to any party directive.

Deputy Mayor Diego Santilli, meanwhile, went as far as saying he did not think it was convenient to attend any march at this moment. Those from his party that did attend were not happy with the words coming from City Hall. “The people will leave the lukewarm politicians that don’t understand how to represent them behind,” Bullrich told reporters after the rally.

Bullrich’s words about “representation” also suggest that her branch of the party is happy to move further to the right to accommodate a new far-right movement emerging in Argentina, more comparable to Trump or Bolsonaro’s hardcore supporters than to Macri’s center-right approach during his four-year term in office.

Journalists closer to the government, as well as a few political analysts, have been pointing to a potential Macri shift in that direction, suggesting ties to former Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon as well as a growing acceptance of the new alt-right like rhetoric seen in the latest rallies, although those sectors have so far been more clearly at home with libertarian candidate José Luis Espert or catholic nationalist Juan José Gómez Centurión in the 2019 election.

Judicial reform could fall

Perhaps the clearest consequence of Monday’s rally will be a delay (or downright suspension) of the government effort to pass the judicial reform bill presented by Fernández last month.

Although the bill is still moving swiftly through the Senate, where the ruling Frente de Todos coalition holds a comfortable majority, several small voting blocs from the House of Representatives came out against the bill in the hours after the rally. Among them was the caucus led by former presidential candidate Roberto Lavagna, as well as that of lawmakers from Córdoba province representing centrist Peronist governor Juan Schiaretti.

Legislators from the Marxist left, as well a few independents from the provinces, have also announced their opposition to the bill, so the Frente de Todos’ leaders in the House – Máximo Kirchner and Sergio Massa — will be rowing upstream, given the fact that they do not have a majority of their own, unlike Cristina Kirchner in the Senate.

“Although the social components of the march are what would typically be called ‘gorilas‘ (anti-Peronists), the most clear aspect of the protesters’ identity is their anti-Kirchnerism. This makes Alberto Fernández’s job more difficult, because he does not have a majority of his own within Peronism and cannot reach out to Congress to build a broader majority either. He needs to generate agreements that are not possible in this scenario of polarization,” Malamud said.

The risk for President Fernández is that a failed judicial reform would be another sign of weakness following the Vicentin debacle, amid a worsening economy and with still no clear way out of the COVID-19 crisis… factors that have been conspiring to reduce his popularity from the staggering 70 to 80 percent approval levels he enjoyed at the start of the lockdown, to 45 to 60 percent in the latest opinion polls.