When it was suggested to Alberto Fernández he might be predestined by the stars to rebuild from the ashes, Argentina’s president said he accepted his fate.
“If it is my destiny, let it be my destiny. What is important is that I build,” he said in an televised interview last month, recalling he first came to power as Néstor Kirchner’s cabinet chief in 2003, when Argentina emerged from a brutal economic crisis. Courtesy of Covid-19, which started spreading three months after his election in December, there is a sense of déjà vu for the Argentine leader.
Mr Fernández has won applause for reaching a deal with creditors on the restructuring of $65bn of the country’s foreign debt in August. But that only represents a first step in the reconstruction of Argentina’s economy, which started spiralling down under his predecessor, Mauricio Macri, triggering a record $57bn IMF bailout in 2018.
Next comes a tough negotiation with the IMF to delay a punishing repayment schedule starting next year, in which the lender is to request a clear plan to reduce a fiscal deficit likely to reach 10 per cent this year. However, such a condition may clash with the more radical factions of Mr Fernández’s ruling coalition.
Many commentators see the pragmatic leader as a tightrope walker, straining to balance the often conflicting demands of his Peronist supporters. That has led to some chaotic policymaking, startling announcements and U-turns. Critics take such moves as evidence of a gradual radicalisation of Mr Fernández’s leftist government under the influence of his vice-president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was president from 2007-15.
Recent examples include failed attempts to nationalise the country’s largest grains exporter; the freezing of telecoms tariffs by presidential decree; and bills being pushed through congress such as a wealth tax and a judicial reform that opponents say is an effort to secure immunity for Ms Fernández de Kirchner, who faces a raft of corruption charges.
“Every single initiative is portrayed as a radicalisation with evil motives, but it’s pure politics,” said Juan Cruz Díaz, managing director at Cefeidas Group, a risk consultancy in Buenos Aires, arguing that a united — albeit leaderless — opposition is trying to exploit the real differences between Mr Fernández and his deputy.
“He needs to keep his coalition together to be competitive in midterm elections next year and guarantee governability. Few people can dance with all those actors, and one of them is Alberto Fernández — so in general he is doing pretty well under the circumstances . . . [even if] things are pretty messy.”
Despite one of the strictest and longest lockdowns in the world, Mr Fernández’s approval ratings remain relatively high at about 60 per cent, although they have been gradually falling from highs of more than 80 per cent in March when the pandemic first hit Argentina, according Juan Germano at Isonomia, a local pollster.
But Covid-19 is proving a mightier opponent than difficult political factions: Argentina’s ongoing lockdown, the longest and toughest in Latin America, has failed to prevent some of the highest daily deaths from coronavirus, while dealing a blow to the economy. Argentina is suffering the worst of both worlds: according to the country’s industrial union, production at 63 per cent of companies has either fallen by more than half, or ceased altogether.
Mr Fernández’s success in reactivating the economy will be critical for his political survival. But María Esperanza Casullo, a political scientist at the National University of Río Negro, believes that there will be no rupture in the uncomfortable alliance between the two Fernándezs for now.
“It is in neither of their interests. Cristina has nothing to gain from a crisis in the government, which is not to say that there won’t be any tensions,” said Ms Casullo. “If the economy rebounds, and a vaccine appears, the government should do well next year. But those are big ifs.”
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