Mauricio Macri chose a running mate known for using anti-immigrant rhetoric, complaining about non-contributory pensions, who calls for a more active role for the armed forces and accuses competitors of being communists. Could Miguel Ángel Pichetto work as a Jair Bolsonaro-like figure in Argentina if the President gets re-elected?
Although analysts highlight some differences with the Brazilian leader (Pichetto comes from traditional politics and has supported gay marriage and the legalization of abortion), the question seems inevitable. Despite not being an outsider, having worked with Carlos Menem and Néstor and Cristina Kirchner during their presidencies, the senator followed with close attention the rise of populist-right figures like Bolsonaro in Brazil.
Pichetto even criticized Macri for not traveling to the swearing-in ceremony of his main ally in the region in January. Any question about tension between Macri and Bolsonaro was left behind long ago, with Bolsonaro even campaigning for Macri’s re-election during his visit to Argentina earlier this month, saying voters need to choose against turning the country into a “new Venezuela.” With both countries now seeing eye to eye, will Pichetto be the Bolsonaro that Macri doesn’t dare to be?
A traditional politician
“By including Pichetto on the ballot, Cambiemos moves to the right,” sociologist Paula Canelo tells The Essential. “It can be described as a bolsonarization of the presidential bid,” she adds. “For me, Argentine society has moved to the right, not as much as in Brazil, but Cambiemos opened the door to a current that was pulsating below the surface. Unlike Bolsonaro — who is an outsider, Pichetto is a systemic player. He’s not going to say anything that society doesn’t want him to say.”
According to political analyst Rosendo Fraga, the comparison with Bolsonaro is a rushed one. “You can’t compare them. Pichetto is a traditional politician,” he tells The Essential. For Fraga, Security Minister Patricia Bullrich already represented that right-wing leaning within Cambiemos (Let’s Change) – the coalition led by Macri which, after the recruitment of Pichetto, changed its name to Juntos por el Cambio (Together for Change).
Since last week, when he announced he was joining Macri’s ranks, Pichetto has given free rein to his old fights with the progressive sector within Peronism. Most notably, he accused Axel Kicillof, former Economy minister under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Frente de Todos candidate for the Buenos Aires governorship, of having political roots in the Communist Party.
In his bid for re-election, Macri is facing competition that wasn’t present during his first victory in 2015, as alternatives to the right of him emerge. Can Pichetto’s rhetoric help capture some of those voters?
For Fraga, it won’t be enough to contain them. Those disenchanted with Macri’s economic policy could vote for economist José Luis Espert (Despertar Front) and those who are furious because Macri enabled the abortion debate last year will vote for Juan José Gómez Centurión (Nos). Pichetto’s strong support for abortion means he is unlikely to help in the latter case.
Last week, however, Pichetto and Espert were invited to the same TV show and the Senator said he was paying “close attention” to the pro-market economist’s warnings about high public spending. “If I’m called to discuss concrete steps for action, I’ll gladly meet with them,” Espert replied.
Pichetto also suggested that spending on social security needed revision, something which investors and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been demanding both in Argentina and in Brazil. Positive market reaction after Pichetto’s nomination seemed to show that there is belief in Pichetto’s power as a political deal-maker to move the country in that direction.
For months, what Macri calls the “red circle” (business leaders, media, investors and judges) have been demanding some sign of change from the government. Either let BA Governor María Eugenia Vidal compete for the Casa Rosada or reduce the power held by Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña, making room for a more traditional power broker. The election of Pichetto was also a response to those demands.
Attracting voters or politicians?
Following Sergio Massa’s alliance with Alberto Fernandez and Cristina Kirchner, the non-Kirchnerite Peronist voters were left without their best positioned presidential candidate. For Fraga, although those voters will likely endorse Roberto Lavagna and Juan Manuel Urtubey (Consenso Federal), they are still at stake, and this influenced Macri’s pick for vice-president.
“It is uncertain how many votes Pichetto can bring to the coalition and how many governors or national legislators he can add if they win,” Fraga says. More importantly, the Nueva Mayoría analyst believes, Pichetto would be key to negotiate with other factions after the election. “In this type of situation (a government without a majority in Congress), the negotiation with Peronist sectors will be decisive in order to reach governance agreements, and Pichetto is an expert at that,” Fraga argues.
Canelo seems to agree. “Pichetto is a good pick as an official to govern the country, not to win an election,” Canelo says. “He doesn’t have votes of his own, just like Alberto Fernandez.” But Fernández has done more to expand his coalition, Canelo believes. “He brought Massa back.”
So far, Pichetto has struggled to keep his old allies from the Peronist party on his side. After his pick as Macri’s running-mate, he announced he would step down as head of the PJ (Peronist party) senatorial caucus – after 16 years of leading it. But the Senator initially refused to give up his bench at the Magistrates Council, the body in charge of the selection and removal of judges. After pressure from his peers who argued the seat belonged to the opposition, however, he also stepped down from that position yesterday.
The Senator & the courts
Despite that set-back, Pichetto can still be of big help to Macri in his relationship with a key actor: the judiciary. As head of the PJ caucus in the Senate, Pichetto green lighted the appointment of hundreds of judges over the last 16 years. He was instrumental in appointing four of the five Supreme Court justices: Ricardo Lorenzetti, Elena Highton de Nolasco, Horacio Rosatti and Carlos Rosenkrantz. The remaining justice, Juan Carlos Maqueda, was a colleague of his in the Peronist caucus in the Upper House before Pichetto became its leader and Maqueda joined the Court.
When Macri made the nominations for the country’s top tribunal soon after taking office, it was his adviser Fabián “Pepín” Rodríguez Simón and Civic Coalition lawmaker Elisa Carrió who designed the scheme. They proposed a jurist clearly aligned with Macri (Rosenkrantz) and one with Peronism (Rosatti) to negotiate their appointments with Pichetto.
Pichetto’s election as Macri’s running mate caused a stir in the Supreme Court. After months of suspicion within the government that a “Peronist majority” was acting against them in the top tribunal, three of the justices, Rosenkrantz, Rosatti and Lorenzetti, were critical of Kirchnerism in the last few days, arguing against their recent suggestions of reviewing judicial rulings made during Macri’s four years in government.
Pichetto’s huge influence in the courthouses is the reason why his exit from the Magistrates Council was so important. With the Senator now on Macri’s side, the President might have used him to discipline Dolores Federal Judge Alejo Ramos Padilla, the magistrate investigating an espionage plot that could hit the government’s shores.