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In the Netflix series “House of Cards,” Francis Underwood, the fictional Vice President of the United States played by Kevin Spacey, turns his face to the camera and says: “There are two types of Vice Presidents: Doormats and matadors. Which do you think I intend to be?”.
This ruthless pragmatism applies to the institutional crisis of the last few weeks in Argentina. After two years of government, the Covid-19 pandemic, and spikes in inflation, the Peronist coalition Frente de Todos was bitterly defeated by the right-wing coalition Juntos.
The collapse was so dramatic for the government that they even lost in its historic electoral strongholds, such as Chaco, Santa Cruz (the district where the Kirchner marriage was politically born), and Buenos Aires “the mother of all battles” due to its size and population.
Even though these elections were the primaries, where society chooses between several candidates within each party, and although the final match will be played in November, the setback activated an old mechanism in Argentine politics known as the search and destroy of the “Marshall of defeat”.
The first move was made by the Vice President, Cristina Kirchner, who, according to the press, met President Fernandez after the election with the intention of changing the course of the government and forcing a replacement of the entire presidential staff.
However, her requests were denied by the Head of the State, who argued that the main districts where the coalition was defeated were Buenos Aires and Santa Cruz (both ruled by the Governors of Mrs. Kirchner’s inner circle). Following this line, the President could not be accused of being the “Marshall of defeat”. Besides, the executive claimed that a change of staff would leave a weakened government if there were similar results in November.
The quarrel got dirty, and the Vice President left the Presidential palace empty-handed. However, Mrs. Kirchner turned out to be – in Underwood’s own terms – no “doormat,” but a “matador.”
“If you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table”– Frank Underwood
Three days after losing the election, Kirchner held her posture by making her loyal henchmen in Santa Cruz and Buenos Aires ask for the resignation of their entire cabinets. The queen put the king in check, but the President kept his stance.
The next day, one of Cristina’s loyalists, the Minister of Interior, Eduardo “Wado” de Pedro, presented his resignation via Twitter. In the following hours, resignations were presented one after another, and entire staff members of several ministries were ready to abandon their positions in obedience to the Vice President’s command.
This offensive was not answered by the President; the third night ended with tepid declarations, reaffirming that the national cabinet would not be changed.
At noon, four days after the election, people ate lunch while reading a statement by the President via Twitter, where he affirmed his authority in the management of the government, calling the Argentines to dialogue, and soliciting the unity of his political front.
His call for unity was bombarded by “filtered” audio of a Peronist Member of Congress, Fernanda Vallejos, a strong member of the Kirchner faction, who mocked the President for being a “squat”, “whippersnapper”, “clown” and a “sick man”.
She also stated:
“This man who thanks to Cristina is sitting there in Rivadavia’s chair [Presidential chair] has no merit to be there. He must surrender to what Cristina says, because Cristina is the representation of the Argentine people, and the Argentine people speaks through her mouth. Not through Alberto Fernández, not through Guzmán’s [Minister of Economy] a**hole”.Source: CNN
This rhetoric violence was ignored by the Presidential office. But the inner circle started to discuss a possible way out of the political battle with a new staff that left every member of the coalition happy.
“Friends make the worst enemies”– Frank Underwood
The night of the fourth day after the election, Cristina Kirchner turned the table with a ruthless letter. She accused the President of ignoring her views about the social crisis, and the fact that she knew the election was lost before it had even happened.
She lashed out against the presidential spokesman, Juan Pablo Biondi, accusing him of propelling media operations against her. This accusation ended with the resignation of the closest advisor of the President.
The ball was in the air as the political media said President Fernandez was seriously evaluating the possibility of breaking the government and expelling the rebel functionaries. Misgovernment and anarchy would probably become the “new normality”.
Behind the scenes, someone who acted in favor of institutional normality, and who helped maintain the cohesion of the political coalition, was the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Sergio Massa. Once a fierce opponent of the Kirchner government between 2013 and 2019, with good relations with the United States and the corporate world, the leader of this Peronist faction acted as a mediator between the two parts and was successful in advancing an agreement that left the Argentines with the sense of a delicate truce, when it all seemed lost.
The work of political articulation of this political actor isn’t new. The Congressman has found help in moving the government’s legislative agenda by working in tandem with the son of the Vice President, Deputy Maximo Kirchner. His ideological pragmatism and contacts gave him the necessary flexibility to mediate the conflict and end the crisis.
“True leadership is not running away from those who disagree with you, but embracing them.” – Frank Underwood
Finally, after an entire week of political unrest, the President changed his staff. Many saw the move as a sign of weakness, but when we dissect the new ministers, we cannot say it was a full Kirchner victory. In spite of the fact that the changes were done when Cristina demanded, the names of new functionaries do not resemble the left-wing coalition Frente de Todos presented in 2019.
The President was also able to keep his Minister of Economy, Martin Guzman (disciple of Stiglitz and negotiator with the IMF), and his Minister of Production, Matias Kulfas, who were both very resisted by the Kirchnerist faction.
The new chief of staff, Governor Juan Manzur, rules one of the most conservative provinces in Argentina. He was recently sued by the Ministry of Women and Diversities because he forced an 11-year-old to have a baby without granting her legal right to an abortion. By U.S. standards, this would be like having a pro-life Texas Governor as the chief of staff of a Democrat administration.
But the Governor is an expert in Argentinian politics, as he worked in the most complex hot areas of Buenos Aires province, as well as Health Secretary in La Matanza (one of the biggest and poorest districts). After that, he became the National Minister of Health and was finally elected as the Governor of Tucuman province. His profile is of a strongman in administering poor areas, and he also presumes an excellent relationship with Israel and the United States.
For the newcomers to the land of the Pampas, Peronism, as Frank Underwood implies, is a party of power where “ruthless pragmatism” prevails, and ideology is just a canvas upon which leaders paint what the people want to see.
“Shake with your right hand, but hold a rock in your left.” – Frank Underwood
To conclude, is this truce going to blow into pieces again if the result of the primaries repeats in the general election? Hard to say, but what we can affirm is that the Argentine political confrontation has something valuable in the Latin American context, and it’s the fact that the crisis has remained inside the political system. There was no attempt or threat to democracy as we saw recently in Brazil or El Salvador.
Maybe if our readers live in parliamentary systems, they might see this “crisis” as something “normal” but as political scientist Juan Linz affirms, an institutional architecture that uses fixed terms of duration in charges like presidentialism, cannot put up with the flexibility this type of crisis demands.
The political dynamic, and the high-speed decisions of the different players in the political game, make it impossible for any analyst to produce accurate predictions and interpretations. However, as we say in Argentina, “It is always good to fish in troubled waters”.
- Is this crisis going to end after the November elections?
- How does the Presidential authority recover from this setback?
- Is parliamentarianism a viable option in Latin America?
- “The dangers of Presidentialism”, by Juan Linz.
- “Peron, the construction of an ideology” by Carlos Piñeiro Iñíguez.
- “The Peronism of Cristina” by Diego Genoud.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The New Global Order. Any contents provided by our authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.