Argentine politics can be sometimes hard to understand, and reading the news is often confusing if you don’t know how the system works. The following should make things clearer and help you to better understand Argentine politics.
How does democracy work in Argentina?
In Argentina, the president is both head of the state and head of the government. The government works on a multi-party system where the two most important parties are the Partido Justicialista which was developed by Perón from the 1940s (better known as the Peronists) and the Unión Cívica Radical founded in 1890 (the Radicals). The Legislative Branch is a bicameral Congress, which consists of the Senate (72 seats), presided by the vice-president – currently Amado Boudou – and the Chamber of Deputies (257 Seats), currently presided by Julián Domínguez, deputy for the Province of Buenos Aires.
Senators serve six-year terms, with one-third standing for re-election every two years. Members of the Chamber of Deputies are elected to four-year terms by a proportional representation system, with half of the members standing for re-election every two years. A third of the candidates presented by the parties must be women.
The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature. The Supreme Court has seven members appointed by the president in consultation with the Senate. The judges of all the other courts are appointed by the Council of Magistrates of the Nation, a secretariat composed of representatives of judges, lawyers, the Congress and the executive.
What is the current situation in the Congress?
Following the 23rd October 2011 elections, the governing Frente para la Victoria (FPV) managed to secure an absolute majority in both chambers -a majority which it had lost in the 2009 mid-term elections.
In the Chamber of Deputies, the FPV and allies have 134 seats out of 257, that’s five more seats than necessary to obtain quorum and to pass most bills. The UCR currently holds 41 seats and the so-called dissident Peronism 28. The Frente Amplio Progresista (FAP), formed in 2011 by the socialists and centre-left allies, has 22 seats thanks to a good performance in the last election. Centre-right PRO has 11 seats whilst the Coalición Cívica was left with only 7 seats after a disastrous election. The remaining eleven seats are held by smaller parties.
In the Senate, the FPV and allies also attained an absolute majority of 38 seats out of 72. The rest of the composition is similar to that in the Chamber of Deputies: the UCR comes second with 17 senators, dissident Peronists follow with 10 and the FAP holds four seats. The remaining three seats belong to smaller, provincial parties.
Who is who in the government?
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has held the office since 10th December 2007. Her first mandate ended in December 2011 and she was re-elected for a second term until 2015. As of 10th December 2011, her cabinet consists of the following Ministers:
Chief of the Cabinet: Juan Manuel Abal Medina
Minister of the Interior: Florencio Randazzo
Minister of Foreign Relations and Cult (usually referred to as “Chancellor”): Héctor Timerman
Minister of Defence: Arturo Puricelli
Minister of the Economy: Hernán Lorenzino
Minister of Justice and Human Rights: Julio Alak
Minister of Labour, Employment and Social Security: Carlos Tomada
Minister of Education: Alberto Sileoni
Minister of Science, Technology and Innovative Production: Lino Barañao
Minister of Health: Juan Luis Manzur
Minister of Social Development: Alicia Kirchner
Minister of Federal Planning, Public Investment and Services: Julio de Vido
Minister of Production: Débora Giorgi
Minister of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries: Norberto Yahuar
Minister of Security: Nilda Garré
The Election of the Executive
The executive power is exercised by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is the Head of State and Head of Government. and who is formally invested with the power over the administration to follow through with the interests of the Nation. The President is also the Commander in Chief of the Argentine Armed Forces.
The President and the Vice President are elected through universal suffrage by the nation considered as a whole. The constitutional reform of 1994 introduced a two-round system by which the winning President-Vice President ticket has to receive either more than 45% of the overall valid votes, or at least 40% of it and a 10% lead over the runner-up. In any other case, the two leading tickets go to a second round whose winner will be decided by a simple majority. This mechanism was instrumental in the election of Néstor Kirchner in 2003.
The Cabinet of Ministers is appointed by the President, and whilst it is an auxiliary to the executive, it does not exercise its power as this is a prerogative of the President. As to the Vice-President, currently Amado Boudou, its institutional status is ambiguous as it is also the president of the Senate. The opinion amongst academics is divided, so whilst some of them consider the VIce-President to be part of the executive power, others think it is part of the legislative and a third group considers it a ‘hybrid’ which does not belong to either power. As president of the Senate, it does not have a vote unless there is a tie.
The Federal Organisation of Argentina.
The country is divided in 23 provinces and the autonomous city of Buenos Aires. With the exception of the Buenos Aires province, whose capital is La Plata, all the provinces have chosen to enter into treaties with other provinces to form four federated regions: Cuyo, the Centre, Patagonia and the Great North. Buenos Aires province is divided into 134 partidos, while the remaining provinces are divided into 376 departments. Departments and partidos are further subdivided into municipalities or districts.
Each of the provinces has its own constitution, laws, authorities, form of government, etc., though these must first comply with the national constitution and laws.
Like in the federal system, the government of each province has three branches (Executive, Legislative and Judiciary). The Executive is led by a Governor. The Legislative Branch may be organised as either one or two chambers or houses.
In all provinces except Buenos Aires, the provinces are divided into districts called departments. Departments are merely administrative divisions; they do not have government structures or authorities of their own. They are in turn divided into municipalities (cities, towns and villages). Each province has its own naming conventions and government systems for different kinds of municipalities. For example, Córdoba province has municipios (cities) and comunas (towns); Santa Fe province further distinguishes between first- and second-category municipios; Chaco refers to all populated centres as municipios in three categories.
The province of Buenos Aires has a different system. Its territory is divided into 134 districts called partidos, which are technically municipalities, even though they usually contain several cities and towns.
Regardless of the province, each department or partido has a head town (cabecera), often – though not necessarily – the largest urban centre, and in some provinces often named the same as their parent district.
Municipalities are ruled by mayors, commonly called intendentes in the case of cities and towns (the larger categories). A city has a legislative body called the Deliberative Council (Concejo Deliberante). The smaller towns have simpler systems, often ruled by commissions presided by a Communal President (Presidente Communal) or a similarly named authority.
The federal capital, Buenos Aires, was declared an autonomous city in the 1994 constitutional reform. Its mayor, formerly chosen by the President of the Republic, is now elected by the people, and receives the title of Chief of Government (Jefe de Gobierno). Other than that, Buenos Aires, like the provinces, has its own Legislative Branch (a unicameral Legislature) and sends deputies and senators as representatives to the National Congress. The city is sub-divided into 15 communes (comunas), each of which has a Junta Comunal formed by seven elected representatives and a Consejo Consultivo, which is an open forum in which anyone can participate. The communes have a number of exclusive attributions and others that are exercised jointly with the City government. After much delay in its implementation (which was established in the 1996 constitution) the communes’ system finally came into effect in December 2011.
PRESIDENT CRISTINA FERNÁNDEZ DE KIRCHNER
Cristina Elizabet Fernández de Kirchner is the current president of Argentina. A member of the Justicialist Party, she was a Senator for Buenos Aires Province prior to taking office in 2007. She is the widow of the former president of Argentina, Néstor Kirchner.
Cristina ran for presidency in October 2007, representing the ruling ‘Frente para la Victoria’ (FPV). She won the general election with 45.3% of the vote: a 22% lead over her nearest rival and a wide enough margin to avoid a run-off election. She is Argentina’s first elected female president, and the second female president ever to serve (after Isabel Martinez de Perón, 1974–76).
Cristina was born in Tolosa, a suburb west of La Plata, and studied law at the National University of La Plata during the 1970s, where she met her future spouse, Néstor. She was elected to the Santa Cruz Provincial Legislature in 1989, and again in 1993. In 1995, she represented Santa Cruz in the Senate, and was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1997, before returning to the Senate in 2001.
Cristina provided much support for her husband’s successful campaign for the presidency in 2003, and throughout his term in power she became an itinerant ambassador for his government, with a highly combative style of speech. In October 2005, she won the election to become the Senator for the FPV.
Her Cabinet was sworn in on 10th December 2007, and of the 12 appointed, seven were already ministers in Néstor Kirchner’s government. Cristina asked former member of the Radical Civic Union, Julio Cobos, to stand as her running-mate, and he is thus now the vice president of Argentina. Former president, Néstor became the leader of the Justicialist Party.
During her term in office, Cristina has travelled extensively, and was invited by President George W. Bush to Washington D.C. in November 2008 for the prestigious Summit on Financial Markets and the World Economy. She then attended the G20 meeting in London in April 2009, as well as the more recent G20 meeting in Toronto.
In October 2010, former president and Cristina’s husband, Néstor Kirchner, passed away. His funerals were attended by thousands of mourners and his death had great political impact. Whilst Cristina’s popularity was already on the rise, this accelerated after Néstor’s death.
It was widely believed at the time that Néstor was going to be the FPV’s presidential candidate in 2011. Without him, speculation mounted as to whether Cristina would take his place. The mystery was finally solved in June 2011, when she announced her candidacy. Shortly afterwards, she announced that then-Economy Minister Amado Boudou would be her running mate.
Primary elections were held in August and the general election in October. In both cases the FPV obtained a landslide victory and Cristina was re-elected with 54% of the vote on the 23rd of October 2011. The main difference in results between the primaries and the general election was the second place: whilst Eduardo Duhalde (Federal Peronism) and Ricardo Alfonsín (UCR) had a virtual tie on the primaries, Hermes Binner (FAP) obtained a clear second place in the general election, with 17% of the votes. It was a good performance for the newly created FAP, but the difference in votes with the winner FPV was still a staggering 37 percentage points.
Cristina Fernández was sworn in to her second term on 10th December 2011.
Since coming into power, the current presidency has fluctuated in popularity and success. With an inevitably huge impact on public opinion, some of the most significant events and decisions made by the president and her cabinet during their term are as follows:
The Campo Crisis:
Riding a wave of popular support during an economic recovery after the 2001-02 crisis, the Kirchners’ FPV enjoyed increasingly large majorities in Congress, reaching their peak following the 2007 general elections, with 153 Congressmen and 44 Senators. However, in 2008, President Kirchner introduced a new sliding-scale taxation system for agricultural exports. A nationwide lockout by farming associations, starting on 12th March, had the aim of forcing the government to back down from the new taxation scheme. They were joined on 25th March by thousands of demonstrators in Buenos Aires and throughout the country. At a rally on 1st April, Cristina called for farmers to act “as part of a country, not as owners of a country”.
On 16th July 2008, the president’s bill was met with deadlock, and ultimately defeated by the tie-breaking “no” vote of vice president Julio Cobos. The controversy cost the FPV 16 Congressmen and four Senators by way of defections, and put an end to the 2008 Argentine government conflict with the agricultural sector. Cobos was labelled a “traitor” by the followers of Kirchner’s administration, but refused to resign.
The Campo Crisis caused Cristina’s approval rating to plummet from 57.8% at the start of her administration to an unprecedented 23%. Following the mid-term elections of 28th June 2009, the ruling FPV lost its absolute majority in both houses of Congress, shedding a further 24 seats in the Lower House and 4 in the Senate. They lost in the country’s four most important electoral districts, and achieved only a very narrow victory overall.
Cristina and the Media:
In October 2009 the Legislative Branch voted on the Executive-backed Media Law, aiming to break up the oligopolies that had long existed in the Argentine media sector. The law restricts the number of media licences per proprietor, and allocates a greater share of these to the state, NGOs and independent publications, thereby limiting the influence of press giants ‘Grupo Clarín’ and others. It was advocated by many as a long overdue democratisation of the previous media law, which had been written under Argentina’s last dictatorship.
Defended by the government as a reform intended to fragment ownership of media companies and encourage plurality of opinion, the bill was criticised by the opposition as a means of silencing voices critical of the government, especially those of the ‘Clarín’ Media Group. The law aroused further controversy: passing through the chambers of the legislature, the mandatory seven-day period between debate and assent of the new legislation was ignored.
Adding to the Clarín conflict, the same month the president proposed the compulsory submission of DNA samples in cases related to crimes against humanity, in a move lauded by the ‘Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo’, but excoriated by opposition figures as a political move against ‘Clarín’ Media Group Chairperson, Ernestina Herrera de Noble, who was in litigation over her suspected adoption of two children of ‘the disappeared’.
In 2011, Congress dealt another blow to Clarín’s business interests as it declared the production of newspaper as an activity of “public interest”, thus allowing the government to intervene in matters of pricing and supply. This affected mainly Clarín and La Nación, as they are both the main shareholders of Papel Prensa, the biggest newspaper producer in the country. Papel Prensa was acquired by Clarín, La Nación and the now defunct newspaper La Razón during the last military government under suspicious circumstances. The government also presented, in 2010, a report called ‘Papel Prensa: La Verdad’ and instructed the Secretary of Human Rights to commence legal actions to determine whether the acquisition of the company by Clarín and La Nación was connected to crimes against humanity committed by the dictatorship.
The National Statistics and Census Institute (INDEC), has been suspected of manipulating inflation statistics under the Kirchner government. Debtors and creditors of Argentina’s external debt have an interest in INDEC’s statistics as it determines how much interest the government will pay on its debt. In March 2012, private analyses of inflation put the figure at 20.78%, compared to 9% published by INDEC.
Accusations of Embezzlement:
Following charges of embezzlement filed by a local attorney on 29th October 2009, Federal Judge Norberto Oyarbide ordered an accounting expert to investigate the origin of the Kirchners’ wealth. Public records show that since their arrival to power in 2003, the couple’s declared assets have increased by 710%, largely through land deals in Patagonia. In a preliminary investigation report, the Argentine Anti-Corruption Office established that the official figures provided by the Kirchners “don’t stack up”. The investigation was suspended by Judge Oyarbide on 30th December, though a week later, the ruling was appealed.
A number of high ranking government officials have also been accused of corruption and some of them, such as vice-president Amado Boudou, are currently being investigated. Regardless of the low rate of convictions on corruption charges, the perception of public sector corruption in society remains high. The 2011 Corruption Perception Index by NGO Transparency International places Argentina 100th on a list of 183 countries, with a score of three out of ten (where zero is ‘highly corrupt’ and ten is ‘very clean’).
Battle with the Central Bank:
2010 began with controversy surrounding the president’s order to use US$6.7bn in Central Bank reserves to pay Argentina’s national debt. Central Bank Chief, Martín Redrado, opposed the plan and he was thus dismissed by presidential decree on 7th January. Redrado was replaced by Mercedes Marcó del Pont after strong legislative opposition, and the national government moved forward with plans to pay external debt using reserves from the Central Bank.
Marcó del Pont has played an active political role as president of the Central Bank and was key in driving a set of reforms to its charter. These reforms, swiftly approved by Congress in its first sessions in 2012, widen the scope of the Central Bank, whose functions are no longer limited to maintaining the value of the currency, but now also include the preservation of financial stability and the promotion of “economic development with social inclusion” through a tighter control of the credit market.
Cristina vs Cobos:
After the campo crisis, the country went through the unusual experience of having a vice-president who was at the same time one of the main opposition figures. Cobos was touted as the main opposition contender for the 2011 election, but his 15 minutes of fame quickly faded. He was readmitted into the UCR (of which he had been expelled for being Cristina’s running mate in the 2007 election) but quit the internal elections before they were even held, and Ricardo Alfonsín represented the party in the October 2011 elections. Upon leaving his role as vice-president in December 2011, Cobos returned to his native Mendoza and retired from politics.
Falkland Islands Sovereignty:
Cristina has, throughout her mandate, done much to put the Malvinas/Falklands dispute back on the agenda. In February 2010, Argentina formally protested the UK decision to explore for petroleum in the coastal area of the Falkland Islands. The 32 Latin American and Caribbean countries have supported Argentina in its claim of sovereignty, both symbolically and through specific actions such as the Mercosur countries’ ban on ships hoisting the Falklands flag from entering their ports. In March 2012, Argentina also threatened with legal action against companies that undertake oil exploration activities near the islands, in a move to force the UK to negotiate. As both the governments of Argentina and the UK exploit the issue for domestic political gain, the diplomatic war of words keeps making headlines in both countries in the context of the 30th anniversary of the 1982 war. Whilst the United Nations Committee on Decolonisation has urged negotiations, they still seem very unlikely.
Asignación Universal por Hijo (AUH):
One of the most important social policies of Cristina’s government, the AUH is a monthly payment for unemployed or informally employed parents with children under the age of 18. The payment is conditional to the children attending school and receiving compulsory vaccinations, so as well as having a major impact on the reduction of extreme poverty -and a moderate impact on the reduction of poverty- it is also expected to improve schooling and vaccination rates. The program was rolled out in October 2009 and currently extends to 4.5 million children. Whilst the AUH is based on similar projects drafted by members of the opposition, it was met with some criticism. The main objection presented by its detractors is that it is not truly universal as it only covers the unemployed and informal workers.
In July 2010, an amendment to the civil code was passed by Congress, thus allowing for same-sex couples to get married. The bill had ample backing by many political parties and social and human rights organisations, so whilst the government cannot take full credit for this reform, it did back it and campaigned for it.
Whilst Néstor Kirchner had kick-started a modest wave of nationalisations during his presidency (when he nationalised the postal service and the water company), Cristina took it further in 2008 when she advanced on the nationalisation of the pensions’ system and the flag carrier Aerolíneas Argentinas.
When the national airline was expropriated in September 2008 it was almost bankrupt and a $890 million debt. A plan to modernise its antique fleet after years of neglect was put in practice and, even though the service of the company has improved noticeably, there is much criticism as to the amount of money it still costs the state.
The pensions’ system, which had been privatised in 1993, was nationalised in December 2008 in the midst of the global financial crisis. This move gave the government not only an increased cash flow with which to finance social programs (such as the AUH) but also shares in a number of private companies in which the private funds had invested their former clients’ money.
In early 2012, privatised oil company Repsol-YPF came under fire as it surfaced that its lack of investment in exploration was causing the country to double its imports in fuel at a time when the trade surplus was already being affected by the global economic crisis. After months of speculation, President Fernández announced the expropriation of 51% of the company’s shares, owned by Spanish giant Repsol. The expropriated shares were in turn divided between the national state (51%) and the oil-producing provinces (49%).
BUENOS AIRES MAYOR MAURICIO MACRI
Mauricio Macri is an Argentine businessman turned politician. After an unsuccessful bid to be mayor of Buenos Aires in 2003, he was elected as a national representative in the Lower House of Congress in 2005. He is currently the mayor of Buenos Aires, having assumed office in December 2007 for his first four-year term and re-elected in 2011 for a second term.
His father, Franco Macri, built one of the most important economic groups in the country through negotiations with the Argentine state. Mauricio, the first born and heir to the family businesses, worked his way up from Junior to Senior Analyst with SIDECO Americana S.A., a construction company belonging to his father’s holding company, the SOCMA Group, where he eventually served as general manager from 1985. In 1992, he became the vice president of Sevel (then manufacturing Fiat and Peugeot automobiles under licence in Argentina), climbing to the presidency in 1994. In 1991, he was kidnapped for 12 days by officers of the Federal District Police, and then freed after his family reportedly paid a multi-million dollar ransom. He has since said that during the ordeal, he decided to enter politics.
Macri gained recognition as president of Boca Juniors Football Club, where he was elected in 1995 and re-elected in 1999 and 2003. His first two years nearly saw the club run into the ground, and he submitted a letter of resignation. He was later allowed to return, and after hiring Carlos Bianchi as Boca’s coach, the club experienced one of the most successful periods of its history, winning several international competitions.
In 2003 Macri made his political debut when he founded the centre-right party Compromiso para el Cambio (Commitment to Change), and later that year he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of the city of Buenos Aires. After creating a right-wing electoral front called Propuesta Republicana (PRO) in 2005, he was elected as a national deputy and later announced he would run again for the mayoral elections of the city of Buenos Aires in 2007. Heading the PRO slate with Gabriela Michetti as his running mate, the ticket was elected after two rounds of voting. Macri’s victory was analysed by many as a defeat for then-president, Néstor Kirchner, of whom he was a staunch critic.
Vice-mayor Michetti resigned her position in 2009 as she was elected for Congress. The 2009 mid-term elections in the city saw PRO win again, although for a lower margin than expected. In June 2011 Macri ran again for mayor, this time with former Social Development Minister María Eugenia Vidal as his running mate, and was elected by 64% of the votes on a second round against FPV candidate Daniel Filmus.
Since his first election, a number of Macri’s actions and decisions during his term have caused considerable controversy, the most notable of which include the following:
One of the first administrative decisions of Macri’s government was to fire 2,400 city employees under contract, claiming they all were “ñoquis” (employees who receive a salary but never show up to work). The action resulted in conflicts with the city unions and was followed by strikes.
Macri created the ‘Unit of Control of Public Space’ (UCEP) – a semi-private body with the mission of removing individuals from the street, “dissuading them” and “persuading them”, in order to “recuperate public space”. Given Buenos Aires’ grave housing crisis, many of the movements and actions of UCEP often ended in violent evictions and street conflict between the police and the public.
In November 2009, Macri was involved in the ‘Ciro James’ spy scandal, after which, many called for his resignation. The scandal dominated national news after the arrest of former Federal Police officer, Ciro James, for illegally recording phone conversations of activists and other government officials. It emerged that James had extensive links with Mayor Macri, having previously worked as part of the Boca Juniors security team when Macri was president of the club. Macri himself was prosecuted for his involvement in the spy scandal.
Metropolitian Police Force:
In the meantime, Macri announced he would create a new Metropolitan Police force under his control, as the main force – the Argentine Federal Police –is under the control of the Ministry of Security of the National Government. Many suggested the move was an attempt to “reorganise territory domination”, in light of accusations that he had been the man giving orders to alleged spy Ciro James. Further controversy was sparked when it came to light the police force would be carrying taser guns.
Controversial Cabinet Nominations:
Macri controversially nominated Jorge ‘Fino’ Palacios to be the first Chief of the Metropolitan Police. Palacios, a former officer in the federal police force, was tied to the terrorist attack against AMIA, a Jewish association in Buenos Aires, in 1994, and murders stemming from police repression in the Plaza de Mayo in December 2001. Two months after his nomination he resigned, and is currently being tried for his connections to the AMIA attack.
Abel Posse, nominated by Macri to replace Mariano Narodowski as minister of education in December 2009, was forced to resign after 11 days. Posse’s nomination was widely denounced for his years as a diplomat under the military dictatorship and his continued support of military officials through columns published in La Nación.
Parque Indoamericano conflict:
In December 2010, around 6,000 people moved into the Parque Indoamericano and started setting up precarious houses in protest for lack of housing in the city. In an operation to evict them, carried out jointly by the Federal Police and the Metropolitan Police, two people were killed. As the national and city governments fought over who was responsible for the situation, inhabitants of nearby Villa Soldati and Villa Lugano took to the park where they attempteed to evict the occupiers themselves. A violent confrontation followed, and another person was killed. Finally, the two governments reached an agreement and gendarmería was sent in to protect the area. The conflict brought some pressing issues to light, such as the chronic lack of housing in the city, the high level of under-execution of the public housing budget and the constant and paralysing conflict between the city and national governments. Macri was heavily criticised and accused of xenophobia when he stated that the conflict was the result of “uncontrolled immigration”, as he highlighted that many of the occupiers where from neighbouring countries.
In 2010, a series of protests regarding the state of public schools were carried out in the city. These included rallies, teachers’ and students’ strikes and schools’ occupations by students. The government promised to increase investment and improve schools’ infrastructure, but the situation of public education in the city continues to be delicate. Teachers’ strikes are a fairly common occurrence and the government is constantly denounced for decreasing and under-executing the budget for public schools, whilst increasing it for private schools.
Macri’s campaign manager, Jaime Durán Barba, has been accused of running a ‘dirty campaign’ against opposition candidate Daniel Filmus during the 2011 city elections. The campaign consisted of fake posters and phone calls falsely accusing the FPV candidate’s father of involvement in a corruption scandal. If found guilty, Durán Barba could face up to two years in prison.