When he officially opens Congress today, President Mauricio Macri begins a tricky legislative year that will require intense negotiations across the political spectrum. Without a majority in either house, Macri’s government will have to rely on alliances to approve every single bill it presents.
The Cristina Fernández de Kirchner government enjoyed a majority for most of its two terms, and the president could present decrees and laws without much concern for their passage through Congress. This made the legislative process more smooth but also led to criticism from those who claimed that key laws were sometimes approved too quickly and with limited debate.
With Macri in the early stages of his four-year presidency as leader of the PRO party, but without a majority in either the Lower House or Senate, everything is now up for negotiation. Macri’s Cambiemos coalition – made up of PRO, the Union Cívica Radical (UCR), and the Coalición Cívica (CC) – has 92 seats in the lower house, short of the 129 needed for a majority. This means that seeking approval from Congress for any government bill will involve negotiations and horse-trading that have not been a feature in recent years. In a way it is, as one source close to Congress noted, “the return of politics to Argentina”.
The main Peronist opposition appears to be more divided than ever, with the Partido Justicialista (PJ) in something of an identity crisis as it prepares to choose a new leader in May. The division was openly demonstrated when over a dozen legislators split from the Kirchnerist Frente para la Victoria (FPV) in February, leaving the party with 81 seats. Breaking out they also publicly signaled an openness to cooperate with Macri on certain issues, something the core FPV bloc has so far not shown a willingness to do.
With this latest split we now have at least four Peronist groups in the lower house: The FPV loyal to the ex-president, with 25 of the 81 members part of the more radical youth group La Campora. Then you have the breakaways, identifying themselves with the PJ, with 17 seats. Taking up another nine seats is Compromiso Parlamentario, a newly-formed Peronist alliance with representatives mainly from provinces in the interior of the country. Finally, losing presidential candidate Sergio Massa is also an important actor. He broke away from the FPV years back and his party now plays a leading role in the Unidos por Una Nueva Argentina (UNA) coalition, which has 35 seats.
The latter three groups could be potential swing votes when Macri looks to create alliances and secure support for government projects, and he has already been busy building bridges. In January, Macri took Massa – who has also announced a legislative alliance with the non-Peronist opposition group Frente Amplio Progresista (six seats) – with him to the World Economic Forum in Davos. And last month the president met with the members of Compromiso Parlamentario in the Casa Rosada, who declared a willingness to support some of Macri’s policies. With both blocs fully on board, the president would potentially be able to reach the magic 129 figure.
Also in the Senate the government is far from having majority. Of the 72 senators, just 15 are from Cambiemos, while the FPV hold a strong bloc of 43. Of the remaining 14, three are from UNA and 11 are Peronists from regional provinces and not aligned with Kirchnerism. As in lower house, there will be a power struggle going on between the Peronist groups which, again, is something Macri can look to exploit.
Since his swearing in, Macri has caused some controversy by issuing 11 emergency decrees, the so-called DNUs, with critics saying he was simply by-passing democratic institutions. However, for the decrees to be validated, they need to be approved by a Special bicameral Committee. The Committee is made up of 16 members, with eight FPV lawmakers, six representatives from Cambiemos, one from UNA and one from the dissident Peronists lead by Senator Adolfo Rodríguez Sáa. The Committee chairman, in this case Senator Luis Naidenoff from the UCR, has the final vote in case of a tie. All 11 decrees have been approved in the past few weeks, with the two non-Kirchnerist Peronists voting with Cambiemos and the chairman breaking the tie in Macri’s favor.
With these first bicameral votes on the decrees we get a glimpse of the give-and-take across parties and alliances, with Macri emerging on top in these opening rounds. However, the real questions for Macri are: how solid is the support opposition groups can give and what will they ask in return? Everyone in Congress has their reasons to negotiate with the president, but nobody wants to be seen as betraying their own party’s ideology either.
This goes for within Macri’s own Cambiemos coalition, within which his PRO party does not hold a majority. The UCR – Argentina’s oldest party – contains a range of ideologies and its support on sensitive matters is unlikely to be unconditional or universal. Importantly, legislators have to be present in the debating chamber to cast a vote, providing parties (and individuals) an opportunity to silently support or block a bill. First of all it gives the opposition parties the chance to negotiate their presence at the day of a vote instead of having to vote for something that would go against their ideology. With some votes needing just a simple majority from those present, staying away is one method of supporting the passage of a bill without explicitly approving it. It is traditionally rare for either house to vote with every seat occupied.
On the other hand, as he is playing with tight margins himself, Macri will need to ensure his party members and allies turn up – and on time – when they are supposed to.
The first of the polemic subjects to be debated is the government’s nominations to fill two vacancies in the Supreme Court. Based on their background and experience, there is nothing too controversial about Horacio Rosatti and Carlos Rosenkrantz, the two candidates put forward by the government. But President Macri originally designated the two by decree just a week after coming into office, and only later backtracked amid widespread criticism and legal challenges.
The bill to appoint the two new judges was presented to the Senate on 1st February in an extraordinary session. The appointment only needs to be agreed on in Senate and requires a simple majority consisting of two thirds of those present.
Macri is completely dependent on the different Peronist groups in Senate. In his favour, the FPV and the Senate in general tend to be more open for dialogue compared to Congress. This is mostly because the interests here are different; the Senators depend on the federal government to get money to their provinces. This is a good reason why it is probably going to be easier for Macri to negotiate this issue than several others. But since nothing is for free, the question is still what Macri has to offer in exchange for votes or empty seats.
The other key test coming up involves the long-running debt dispute with powerful holdout creditors (so-called ‘vulture funds’). One of Macri’s promises when he was elected to run the country was to negotiate with the vulture funds and reach a deal to resolve all outstanding issues and return Argentina to global financial markets, a stand that is welcomed by the US.
After 15 years Argentina of struggling with outstanding debt payments resulting from the mega default in 2001, the government finally reached a settlement agreement on Sunday night.
For the deal to go through, however, two laws passed under Kirchnerist governments – the so-called ‘Lock Law’ and ‘Sovereign Payment Law’ – must be repealed by Congress. The issue is controversial – the opposition claims the government is paying over the odds to settle the issue – and at the same time very important for Macri’s economic plans.
Finance Minister Alfonso Prat-Gay yesterday sent a message to legislators, saying: “We’ve made it up to here, now it’s the responsibility of Congress.” The response is not yet clear. Sergio Massa said that his party is “willing” to support Macri in the search for a solution, though was hesitant to back the latest agreement. The 17 break-outs from the FPV have announced they are prepared to discuss the issue, a vague pledge but more than their old party is willing to offer.
An exciting and challenging legislative year is about to begin for the president. Up until now he has used the summer recess to liberally exercise his powers of decree and make efforts to build support in Congress. We will soon find out how successful he has been. Nothing is certain in Argentine politics, and even less so when you don’t have a majority.