It wasn’t long ago that Mauricio Macri handpicked Horacio Rodríguez Larreta as the candidate to succeed him as Buenos Aires City mayor, months before going on to become President in 2015. But Macri and Larreta are now going down different roads, and despite heading what is arguably the most staunchly anti-Peronist stronghold in Argentina, BA Mayor Larreta has moved closer to President Alberto Fernández since his re-election.
The pictures of the Mayor sitting to the right side of the President have now become the norm. Larreta is there in every bi-weekly press conference announcing the extension of the COVID-19 lockdown, and was even there when Fernández presented Argentina’s initial debt restructuring proposal, although this time sitting to his left, with Cristina Fernández on the other side.
The tone of the shared press conferences is an unusually friendly one, with leaders addressing each other on a first name basis, speaking of team work, sharing playful football jibes and generally using a style that would not have looked out of place with Macri still in charge. Digs at Macri for the state of the economy or the public health care system are not out of the question, but when either Fernández or BA Province Governor Axel Kicillof go that route Larreta simply puts on his best poker face and the briefing goes on with no obvious signs of tension.
It’s not that Larreta has stepped down from Macri’s PRO party or that everyone in Fernández’s Frente de Todos coalition suddenly likes Larreta, but the President and the Mayor have several things in common, from shared interests and allies to a personality prone to negotiation and a need to work together to avoid a public health crisis, so the reasons for collaborating are many.
There was certainly potential for conflict between the new President and Buenos Aires City early on. On the week in which Fernández took office, his VP Fernández de Kirchner spoke out against the current tax co-participation regime, which re-distributes part of the federal tax collection among the 23 provinces plus the capital district, saying the city was “privileged” and that “even the plants there are well illuminated, while in Greater Buenos Aires people have to walk through mud and water.”
For a few weeks after those words, the press speculated about the upcoming clash between Fernández and Larreta for that (quite significant) tax pot, but the conflict never materialized. “All I heard for the moment are rumors in the press, but the President said any change regarding the Federal government’s policy towards the city would be the result of talks and consensus, and I trust what the President said,” Larreta said early in February.
Governors and mayors always have more of an incentive to be in good terms with the President when compared to opposition members with no executive positions, as the federal administration has a lot of say on the distribution of those tax pots. But that didn’t stop some conflicts between the Kirchner and Macri camps in the past, so there’s clearly something more to this newfound closeness.
One thing Fernández and Larreta have in common is a series of business, union and political allies.
An example of these common interests in the city was made public during the pandemic, when both the national and city administrations were under fire regarding the auctioning process of food, hospital materials and hotels for quarantined travelers.
BA City’s government hired the services of two companies linked to Larreta’s brother and sister, but more interestingly these firms were also linked to the powerful doormen union (SUTERH), perhaps the main ally of the Peronist party in BA City. The firm was also connected to some real estate developers also linked to BA city Peronism, from which President Fernández originally comes.
According to La Nación’s investigative journalist Francisco Olivera, the data from those suspected auctions was leaked to the press by allies of former President Macri, signaling that the Larreta and Macri factions within the PRO party are in clear conflict at the moment.
Alliances between PRO and BA City Peronism leaders to approve real estate developments or extend gambling authorizations in the city are also quite common, and Larreta is known to favor alliances with sectors of Peronism within his ruling coalition (Deputy Mayor Diego Santilli, for example, has a Peronist past), a strategy which Macri opposed throughout his term as president.
A similar style
Although Fernández has for years been more of a social-democrat and Larreta is something closer to a liberal-conservative, both also share an inclination towards broad coalition building.
Néstor Kirchner’s political experiment during his first presidential term (2003-2007), allying the traditional Peronist working-class base with progressive groups and small parties that had been previously scattered, is said to have been of Fernández’s making when he worked as his cabinet chief.
That project, known as the “Transversalidad”, was followed in 2007 by another less successful one, known as “Concertación”, in which the Kirchnerite coalition tried to bring in some members from the Radical Civic Union (UCR) opposition on board as well, going as far as including UCR’s Mendoza Governor Julio Cobos as Cristina Kirchner’s VP in the election ticket.
The Concertación scheme was also a Fernández idea, but it came to an end quick when the UCR VP voted against the presidential export duty bill in 2008. Still, it was another example of Fernández’s inclination to act as a middleman, as were his late attempts to reconcile the government with farmers in 2008 before ultimately resigning and splitting with the Kirchners.
Larreta, meanwhile, was also known to prudently favor a broader political strategy than Macri during the 2015-2019 presidency, looking for Peronist allies across the aisle. Former speaker of the House Emilio Monzó and former Interior minister Rogelio Frigerio, part of that Peronist-friendly faction that sometimes helped and sometimes fought with Macri throughout his presidency, are also reportedly siding with Larreta in this dispute. Another obvious link between the two is Massa, with whom Larreta always stayed in good terms, something which cannot be said of Macri.
The PRO divide
But Macri has remained extremely low profile since the end of his presidency, with some even going as far as saying that he’s become disinterested in politics.
The mantle has been taken on by figures such as Former Security Minister Patricia Bullrich and former VP candidate Miguel Pichetto, both of whom have been more critical of the COVID-19 lockdown that Larreta supports, as well as building a more ideologically right-wing image over the last few years.
Meanwhile, Larreta has worked to keep former BA Province governor María Eugenia Vidal on his side, as well as UCR lawmaker Martín Lousteau and others, all cultivating a centrist profile. If Fernández’s image remains as positive as it’s been at the start of the pandemic, that strategy might prove effective for Larreta, as his image has been rising on par with Fernández’s so far.
But polls are also detecting some discontent with the BA Mayor among the more hardline anti-Peronists, and in a volatile context such as the present one it is still far too early to know how all of these strategies will eventually pay off.