As the “notebooks scandal” continues developing apace, Senator Miguel Ángel Pichetto is attempting to show that the personal is not political. The head of the Partido Justicialista bloc in Argentina’s Senate confirmed yesterday that the decision not to strip former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of her congressional immunity was the will of his caucus.
“I am not expressing my personal opinion,” he said, instead clarifying, “I am the head of this caucus and as such I accept the responsibilities of being the head of the caucus. I accept that the task of communication is a central issue in politics and I don’t remain silent. I don’t think that politics can exist in silence in Argentina. I debate.”
Crucially, the Río Negro Senator added, “I express the voice of the governors of Peronism and of the senators who maintain that in the criminal process, and fundamentally in the preliminary investigation stage, freedom is a right.”
Senator Pichetto’s comments come as judicial pressure mounts against Cristina in the corruption scandal currently shaking Argentina to its core. The former President was indicted this week in connection with case, but she is unlikely to face a prison sentence due to the congressional immunity that comes with holding a seat in the Senate.
Over the past month, the Senate has repeatedly discussed stripping the embattled Senator of her congressional immunity, but legislators remain divided. While the Cambiemos bloc in the Senate has previously stated that it would vote in favor of the motion, Kirchner’s Unidad Ciudadana caucus would vote against it and the vote would flounder without the Partido Justicialista’s support.
Meanwhile, Pichetto said that he is respecting the will of his caucus and will not vote in favor of such a motion until she receives a firm sentence as dictated by the Argentine judicial system. “Pre-trial detention is an advance punishment,” he said. “I don’t believe in instant justice, media justice or voices of outrage that may have some legitimacy, but due process in Argentina has rules and guarantees.”
He also stated that the pressure exerted on him by the media’s treatment of the case would not sway his decision. “If we carry out media justice and decide to apply punishment we are in a very weak Argentina, because what today is for one person, tomorrow could be for those who govern,” in a thinly veiled allusion to the corruption scandals that have affected Cambiemos in the past.
Pichetto’s statements reveal a tension at the heart of the Peronist bloc as the political establishment begins to eye the upcoming presidential elections next year. As Luis Majul explains, instead of benefitting from this scandal, the Partido Justicialista presidential candidates, such as Pichetto, Sergio Massa and Juan Manuel Urtubey, have found themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place, trying to balance their open dislike of Cristina and Kirchnerism with a need not to alienate potential Unidad Ciudadania voters, who may well be looking for a new candidate should Cristina choose not to run.
However, Pichetto has hardly minced his words when talking about the former President in the past. He sharply criticized Cristina when announcing his candidacy for the presidenciales, saying that his faction represented “the true Peronism of Perón,” while Kirchnerite factions were “the sectors of the left, the Trotskyites, who think that in radicalizing and breaking everything there is the possibility of returning to power.”
Jubilados escracharon a Pichetto: "traidor, sos la dictadura" https://t.co/4gANOIlSZ0
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While these inflammatory remarks were meant to bolster Partido Justicialista support, they may drive away Unidad Ciudadana voters who have already labelled Pichetto a traitor for his past voting patterns. During Pichetto’s visit to El Porvenir Social and Sports Club in Quilmes yesterday, retirees picketed the event with signs reading, “Stay Strong Cristina,” “You are Macri” and “Traitor,” in reference to the Senator’s vote in favor of pension reform in 2017. Despite his continued avowal to vote against a motion stripping Cristina of her congressional immunity, the animosity between these factions may prove to be an insuperable hurdle in his campaign.
Even should these candidates manage to put their personal prejudice aside and respect the party line, this scandal may continue to damage their political aspirations. While the Partido Justicialista hopes that the tumbling exchange rate and economic crisis will lead voters away from “business-minded” Mauricio Macri and Cambiemos, their continued public support for Cristina may perturb voters exposed to a barrage of scandalous revelations about the case every day. By maintaining Kirchner’s immunity, the Partido Justicialista is associated with the case by extension.
Through his emphasis that this decision is the result of the collective will of Partido Justicialista governors and Senators, Pichetto distances himself from the decision and alleviates some of the media pressure questioning why his bloc is standing by Cristina as allegations against her continue to mount. As the campaign cycle begins, the “notebooks scandal” will be a key topic of discussion and Partido Justicialista candidates will have to tread carefully as they try to balance their criticism for Cristina with their attempts to win over her voters.