Argentina is heading for elections in November. Its economy is in a wretched state and its political class has attracted widespread condemnation for breaching Covid-19 rules. All this, argues Sergio Ricardo Quiroga, undermines the electoral prospects of the main governing party
Open Primary Elections take place in Argentina on 12 September, followed by a General Election on 14 November. The most important parties at national level are Mauricio Macri's Together for Change, and the ruling Justicialist Party, led by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Alberto Fernández.
Reduced turnout is expected as a result of a general antagonism towards the political class. It is tempting to identify this with the government’s economic performance. Argentina experienced 29.1% inflation in the first seven months of this year. In July alone, inflation ran at 3%. There has also been a fall in real wages, and poverty has soared to almost 45%.
Yet we can't lay all this at the government’s door. These are long-term problems. The inflation rate between 2002 and 2019 rose a staggering 103.05%. In the last fifteen years, prices have multiplied by 15. The majority of Argentines who can, save in US dollars. Over the past two decades, social plans have multiplied tenfold, from two to 20 million. Extreme poverty has long been commonplace.
Faced with elections, Alberto Fernández's government proposed broad ‘populist’ measures aiming to put more money in citizens' pockets through social assistance, and a national public works plan worth 1% of GDP. The ruling party argues that the pandemic prevented it implementing its plans of December 2019. It also claims it was hampered by debt inherited from the previous Macri government. Fernández maintains his policies are designed to support the poor, and workers.
The opposing coalition, Together for Change, proposes significantly more spending on education, faster rollout of Covid vaccinations, and various economic reforms.
But it is not just the woeful economy that's fuelling public resentment towards the political class. Overshadowing this election (and Fernández’s re-election struggle) is the extent to which the government, amid an unfolding economic and public health crisis, preserved the privileges of its own. Most notably, those at the top flouted rules they imposed on the rest of the population. Recent revelations about the President’s behaviour have reignited this as a significant issue in election debate.
The Argentinian quarantine, known as Preventive and Obligatory Social Isolation (ASPO), began rollout on 12 March 2020. ASPO was one of the longest and most stringent lockdowns in the world. Among other provisions, the Ministry of Health could enforce mandatory 14-day isolation for suspected cases of a positive infection. A decree obliged anyone to report Covid-like symptoms. The Ministry implemented a nighttime curfew, prohibited social meetings in private homes, and limited outdoor gatherings to 20 people. Those who failed to obey incurred sanctions.
On 14 February 2020, a photo appeared in the media showing the birthday celebrations of Argentina's First Lady, Fabiola Yañez. This image, by journalist Guadalupe Vázquez and published in La Nacion Mas, exposed the depths of the president’s hypocrisy. While Argentinians were banned from social mixing, entry records to presidential residence Quinta de Olivos log the arrival of a considerable number of people who were certainly not government employees.
Argentina's lockdown restrictions were some of the longest and most stringent in the world
The eleven guests included Taiwanese businessman Robert Chien and the partner of Fabiola's friend and advisor, Sofía Pacchi. The photo confirms the President failed to comply with his own Covid-19 restrictions, and suggests Yáñez was using her social networks to flaunt her privileges as First Lady. It also reveals the fragility of the security of the presidential environment. All this has caused Argentinians to question Fernández’s claim that he is indeed 'a common man'.
This breach of Covid-19 restrictions, however, was not entirely unsurprising. Journalists have long suspected the President’s tendency towards non-compliance. In 2020 a photo circulated featuring a maskless Fernández alongside Truckers Guild leader and president of Club Atlético Independiente, Hugo Moyano.
Journalists have long suspected President Fernández’s tendency towards non-compliance with Covid regulations
The President's breach follows the so-called VIP Vaccination scandal, in which more than 70 highly ranked people received the Sputnik-V vaccine. Vaccinations took place in a way that breached ministerial protocols, and for no other reasons, it seems, than privilege. The scandal led to the resignation from government of Health Minister Ginés González García. The case remains in the Argentine courts. Suspicion is rife that in provinces elsewhere, governors of different political backgrounds did the same thing.
In short, President Fernández doesn't seem to abide by the rules he imposes on Argentine society. And this highlights the biggest problem facing the ruling party. It is not so much its mismanagement of the economy (which is open to debate) but its loss of credibility.
It is not so much the ruling party's mismanagement of the economy but its loss of credibility which is its biggest problem
Evidence that the President breached his own rules is irrefutable. Covering up his breach suggests Fernández is comfortable with not telling the truth in public affairs. Even ‘populist’ measures for the poor and workers may not be enough to salvage his election prospects.