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Argentina is walking a thin red line
August 16, 2018
One year from primary elections, the future of Argentina is torn between economic stagnation, the debate over the decriminalization of abortion, and the corruption of the Kirchner years.
Por Gabriel C. Salvia

(Global Americans) As we wrote about almost a year ago, Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s political alliance won a resounding victory in mid-term legislative elections in October 2017 despite a weak economy, which led to the prediction of his almost certain re-election in 2019.

Since then, however, the economy has continued to struggle throughout 2018, and the Macri government seems to be left without answers, far from achieving an economic rebound. For this reason, many commentators believe the main reason why President Macri was open to a discussion of a law that would decriminalize abortion was to help distract from economic issues in the short-term, while at the same time waiting for an economic rebound before the 2019 elections.

The discussion over the decriminalization law no doubt sparked a heated and necessary debate, capturing the attention of the Argentine population over the last few months and bringing the discussion over decriminalization to the table across Latin America. The proposed law was approved by the Chamber of Deputies—Argentina’s lower congressional chamber—but later rejected by the Senate. During debates in each chamber, the plaza in front of the National Congress was filled with protestors divided into two camps, one in favor of the law and one against it. The most interesting thing was that for the first time, opinion over the law transcended party lines; some government officials supported the law and others were against it, producing an internal crack in the Macri movement.

And just when the debate over the proposed law was about to come to the floor in the Senate, a corruption scandal from the Kirchner years (2003-2007 under Néstor Kirchner and 2007-2015 under Cristina Kirchner) came to light. A former driver of an official who worked with the minister closest to the Kirchner marriage kept a record of his work in notebooks, including the payments of supposed bribes of public works projects. The notes detail meetings, names and even places where he delivered cash payments.

The now famous “notebooks” were to delivered to a journalist from the newspaper La Nación, and right after their content came to light, the Ministry of Justice began to make arrests. At the same time, former official and businessmen appeared before the authorities, confessing their crimes in order to obtain the benefit of “awarded denunciation.” The last to come forward was the former president and current Senator Cristina Kirchner, who challenged the judge, attempted to disqualify the journalist, and denounced what she called political persecution.

If the accusation of illicit association is proven, it will go all the way to the top to the Kirchners themselves, although Nestor Kirchner died in 2010. One fact is certain: Cristina Kirchner cannot justify her sizeable estate. The best hint of what’s to come came in response from Kirchner herself to a question from a student at Harvard University in September 2012, when she claimed that her fortune came from her time as a lawyer, a profession she has never practiced.

On the other hand, several analysts maintain that Macri does not want Cristina Kirchner to end up in jail because of the risk that she would become a victim in the vein of Lula in Brazil. However, despite appearances to the contrary during the Menem and Kirchner administrations, Justice is an independent, co-equal branch of government.

Nobody knows how “notebook-gate” will come to an end, but comparisons are already being drawn to the Lava Jato in Brazil and Mani Pulite in Italy. It principle, the Macri government should favor a complete investigation, but a negative impact on ongoing public works projects would have a negative impact on an already weak economy and potentially affect next year’s presidential elections. At the same time, a cousin of Macri who inherited the family public works business is one of the businessmen regretting having given bribes to Kirchner officials. Finally, we must not forget that the father of President Macri, Franco Macri, is one of the most prominent historic state contractors in Argentina.

With a year to go until primary elections, it’s difficult to predict whether Macri or another member of his party will succeed and finally be able to provide continuity to the hopes of change that a little more than half of Argentine society voted for in 2015. In any case, the current political context is an opportunity to implement reforms that strengthen the transparency, division and independence of powers and good government that are so urgently needed to give a respite to Argentina’s beleaguered political system.