For months now, Argentina’s most powerful opposition politician, Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, has worked hand-in-hand with President Alberto Fernández to confront the coronavirus crisis. Their collaboration has been all the more notable for its contrast to past antagonism between the country’s last Peronist president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and former Buenos Aires mayor and later president himself, Mauricio Macri.
But with cases rising and new data suggesting a grim economic outlook, the question of how closely to work with the government is revealing divisions within Argentina’s otherwise unified opposition. With its full effects slowly coming into focus, the coronavirus pandemic could well shape a burgeoning power struggle following Macri’s failed re-election bid last year.
Larreta, who joined Fernández on June 26 to announce a stricter quarantine for the populous Buenos Aires metropolitan area, is “today the opposition leader with the most momentum,” said Mariel Fornoni, a political analyst and director of the pollster Management and Fit. After winning his second term last year, Larreta has continued what many see as a moderate governing style that stresses effective management over political confrontation.
“Despite heading what is arguably the most staunchly anti-Peronist stronghold in Argentina, Larreta has moved closer to Fernández since his re-election,” journalist Ignacio Portes wrote in The Essential, noting that president and mayor share a “personality prone to negotiation and a need to work together to avoid a public health crisis.”
At around 1,300, Argentina’s death toll from the virus is far below that of some of its South American neighbors. But a spike in cases in Buenos Aires and the surrounding province led Larreta, Fernández and the provincial governor (and Fernández ally) Axel Kicillof to reverse plans to ease the region’s lockdown. Instead, new restrictions will limit circulation in the capital and 35 neighboring municipalities until July 17.
The image of the three leaders announcing the new quarantine together suggests Larreta’s aversion to partisanship in the middle of a crisis. But high-profile figures within his coalition of opposition parties, Together for Change, have nonetheless pressured Larreta to distance himself from the government and speed up the reopening of the economy. These include Alfredo Cornejo, the head of the opposition Radical Civic Union party and former governor of Mendoza who, like Larreta, is seen as a likely contender for president in 2023.
“Larreta is under heavy pressure by the government,” Cornejo told Canal 9. “That’s why he needs to be more courageous and less afraid … Anyone who voices an opinion against (the government’s) strategy, is seen as being in favor of more deaths.”
Likewise, a statement from the Civic Coalition, an opposition party founded by the influential politician Elisa Carrió, warned against the city of Buenos Aires “attaching its exit strategy to the inefficiency that we all see in the execution of public health and security policies by Axel Kiciloff.”
The economic concern is understandable. Argentina’s economy contracted 26.4% in April compared to the same month last year – its worst performance since the government’s statistics agency started publishing monthly data in 1993.
“I think Larreta is making a bet that his policy regarding the quarantine will pay off and the economy will recover,” said Nicolás Saldías, a senior researcher for the Wilson Center’s Argentina Project. “If it doesn’t pay off, the opposition within the opposition – the more hardline, anti-Peronist part of the party – will say, ‘you sold out the economy to the Peronists. You destroyed the middle class.’”
One of the most prominent of these “hardliners” is Patricia Bullrich, the president of Macri’s Republican Proposal party and his former security minister. She has criticized the government’s coronavirus approach repeatedly, saying the quarantine was “postponing the problem.” A further deterioration in Argentina’s health and economic situation could be fertile ground for Bullrich, who is close to Macri.
“As the economic crisis deepens, and if they seem to have no plan to lift restrictions in Buenos Aires, that could provide some breathing room to the hardliners in the opposition,” said Bruno Binetti, a fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue.
But Larreta is not the only opposition figure resisting outright confrontation with the government over pandemic policies. Others include María Eugenia Vidal, a charismatic ally of Larreta who lost her re-election bid as Buenos Aires provincial governor last year but remains relatively popular.
Though midterm elections are more than a year away, the choice of collaboration or confrontation with the government over pandemic policy could play a role in determining which opposition figures are able to connect with voters in 2021.
“Some 40% of the population voted for Together for Change in last year’s election,” Fornoni told AQ. “They now find themselves a little bit orphaned in the sense that they aren’t sure who is representing them.”
Indeed, uncertainty over Macri’s role has left open some questions about leadership within the opposition. His better-than-expected performance in October’s election suggested to many that the former president could still be the one to guide the opposition forward. But until participating in a handful of high-profile meetings in recent weeks, he’d been largely absent from politics this year.
“If you look at how Macri is being referred to, it’s as an ex-president, not as an opposition leader,” Fornoni said. “He hasn’t expressed what he wants to be, where he wants to be. So that makes it pretty complicated for the opposition.”
Meanwhile, allegations by Fernández’s government that Macri’s government spied on more than 400 people have also hurt the former president’s already weak public image. But Argentina does have a track record of ex-presidents returning to politics and earning legal protection that comes with election to high office. Former President Carlos Menem, now a senator, and Fernández de Kirchner, now vice president, are two examples.
Regardless of what Macri decides to do, Fornoni points to the complete unpredictability of the last year of Argentine politics, which turned upside down with the surprise candidacy of Alberto Fernández.
“This is a country where anything can happen.”
Tags: Alberto Fernández, Argentina Politics, Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, Mauricio Macri