Scioli in His Labyrinth

˙ Voces

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The presidential candidate for the ruling Kirchnerist party, Daniel Scioli, is far from certain to win in the October 25th elections. Most polls show he is close to reaching the goal of 40% of the vote with 10% over his most immediate rival, Mauricio Macri, but doubt is likely to remain until the last votes are counted in the morning of the 26th. If he does not reach this difference over Macri (or 45% of the vote, which is even less likely), Scioli will have to face him in a second round, with uncertain results.

Scioli has given hints that he will implement different policies from current president Cristina Kirchner if he reaches the Casa Rosada on December 10th. Scioli’s relationship with the president (and her deceased husband Nestor Kirchner) has been mired by mutual support, tensions and distrust. For hardcore Kirchnerists, Scioli represents the right wing of Peronism, much closer to the private sector (and to Washington) than the left wing led by the Kirchners.

One of the clearest demonstrations of Scioli’s desire to break away from the legacy of Kirchnerism took place last week in New York, during a meeting of the Council of the Americas. There, Juan Manuel Urtubey—governor of the northern Salta province and who usually says what Scioli thinks but cannot publicly state—mentioned that if elected, Scioli would seek a quick agreement with the holdouts of Argentinian public bonds. Urtubey also stated that the slowdown of the Chinese economy and its impact on Argentina will require the relaxation of currency restrictions and a rapprochement with the United States. Implicitly, Scioli’s ally criticized President Kirchner’s policies in these areas.

These revelations by the governor of Salta took place in a context of growing and unconcealed tension between followers of Scioli and Cristina, both members of the ruling Front for Victory. Recently, political leaders close to the President insinuated that Scioli would be a transitional president, only in office until Cristina returns in 2019. Scioli rebuffed these opinions, and publicly said that he will change whatever needs to be modified, and he will carry out the duties of the Executive “as stated in the Constitution.”

But the presidential elections will not mean the end of the latent conflict between Scioli and Kirchner. Even if the former reaches the presidency, he will face a number of obstacles if he intends to govern independently. Cristina Kirchner will not hold any public office from December 10, but she has filled legislative candidacies with loyalists, including current Minister of the Economy Axel Kicillof. Scioli’s vice-presidential candidate, Carlos Zannini, was another imposition by Cristina, and will answer only to her. She has also made sure that her followers continue in high positions in most ministries and the central bank. This group of “pure Kirchnerists” could resist any attempts by a Scioli administration to normalize relations with Washington and implement a more moderate economic policy.

To strengthen her control after her term expires, Cristina Kirchner is sending a legislative package to Congress that includes the creation of new state agencies for her followers and a restriction on the capacity of the government to sell shares the government owns in various private companies. The President has carried on a number of announcements and openings, usually with the presence of Front for Victory candidates (including Scioli and her son Maximo Kirchner, who is running for Congress). Her speeches are usually transmitted on all TV and radio stations using a mandatory “national broadcast.”

At the same time, the economic legacy Cristina Kirchner will leave for her successor will be very daunting. The economy will grow only by 0.4% this year, and will enter a recession in 2016, contracting by 0.7%, according to the IMF. Inflation remains high, at about 25%, and international currency reserves went down to 27 billion dollars (from 40 billion in 2011). Argentinian officials are negotiating the renewal of a currency swap exchange with China, because the current one (for 11 billion dollars) has already been used in its entirety. The government has tried to protect central bank reserves by implementing strong restrictions to the sales of dollars, and the gap between the official exchange rate (9.4 pesos per dollar) and the illegal rate (15.7 pesos per dollar) continues to grow.

Until now, Scioli has tried to maintain an intermediate position between those who—inside Peronism—demand profound changes to the way in which politics and the economy are being handled, mainly provincial governors, and the group that is closer to the president, who want to maintain current policies. To avoid having to define his position on controversial issues, Scioli did not participate in the first presidential debate in Argentinian history, which was carried on by civil society organizations and which all the other candidates, including Macri, attended. But if he reaches the presidency, the time for ambiguities will have ended, and Scioli will have to prove if he will rule on his own or if he will merely be the continuation of Kirchnerism, in power since 2003. 

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