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ARGENTINA | 17-09-2021 22:01

Alberto Fernández seeks exit from crisis with Cabinet reshuffle

President drawing up new Cabinet​​ in bid to overcome schism with Veep; Communications & Press Secretary Juan Pablo Biondi resigns post; Government set to unveil raft to new measures to attract voters.

After an extraordinary week in which the ruling coalition’s internal conflicts were laid bare for all to see, President Alberto Fernández was huddling with advisers last night, discussing his next move with a close circle of trusted officials.

According to reports, the Peronist leader was in the process of drawing up a new line-up for his Cabinet in a desperate attempt to put a lid on the political crisis that has gripped his government. Despite previously resisting attempts to force him into a reshuffle before the November midterms, his objections seems to have been lifted after six days of rumours, recriminations – and a fierce attack from his own vice-president.

The Peronist leader, who immediately came under pressure following the heavy loss suffered by Frente de Todos in last Sunday’s PASO primaries, has spent much of this week assessing how to salvage the ruling coalition. 

He now intends to construct a new Cabinet representing all the sectors of Frente de Todos, with consensus said to be key. 

Speaking to the El Destape news portal, Fernández said Friday that progress is “quite advanced” and that he would “order the Cabinet and end this discussion.”

 

Political earthquake

The ruling coalition garnered less than 31 percent of the vote in the primaries, with the opposition Juntos por el Cambio coalition taking around 40 percent. The unexpected results sparked fears in the government ahead of the midterms, when half the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and a third of those in the Senate will be renewed. Frente de Todos has a majority in the Senate and had been hoping to achieve the same in the lower house.

At the beginning of the week, the president was reluctant to enter into a reshuffle, but developments in recent days have forced his hand.

On Thursday, Fernández de Kirchner slammed the president in a dramatic open letter, heightening the political crisis and exposing the faultlines in their relationship. 

The vice-president, who governed Argentina from 2007 to 2015, said she blamed Fernández for the “political catastrophe” caused by his economic strategy. 

She also called for a sweeping overhaul of the Cabinet, just days after five cabinet ministers and other officials loyal to the former president offered to resign their posts in a coordinated response to the election loss.

Though Fernández initially refused to accept the resignations for now, sources inside the Casa Rosada told the Noticias Argentinas news agency on Friday that the “explosive” letter from the vice-president had “forced” the president to “recalculate.”

"There do not seem to be many options,” said the source, adding that prior to the letter, the president was hoping to resolve any dispute through “dialogue and without pressure.”

Another source close to Cabinet Chief Santiago Caifero told the same agency that the president had two options: “Break Frente de Todos or abide by what Cristina asks.”

At press time last night, several outlets were reporting that Cafiero could be on his way out, while Communications & Press Secretary to the Presidency Juan Biondi, another target of criticism in Fernández de Kirchner’s letter, resigned his post.

 

Heavy loss

The coalition’s loss in the September 12 vote was always likely to prompt soul-searching in the government, but this week’s developments have stunned even the most seasoned political observers in Argentina.

Fernández de Kirchner’s letter came just hours after a leaked WhatsApp audio message from ruling coalition deputy Fernanda Vallejos had gone viral, in which she slammed the president, describing him as a “squatter” who was only in the Casa Rosada thanks to his vice-president.

Much of Vallejos’ criticism was echoed in the vice-president’s missive on Thursday night, in which she claimed the PASO loss was largely due to the government’s mistaken adoption of fiscal austerity, ramping up pressure on Fernández to ramp up spending. 

In meetings with the president ahead of the vote, Fernández de Kirchner said she repeatedly warned against spending cuts “that were negatively impacting economic activity and society, and which would undoubtedly have electoral consequences.” 

Fernández de Kirchner chose Fernández to lead their Frente de Todos coalition ticket for the 2019 presidential vote. Just two months from the midterms, the letter exposes the schism between the two factions: the more radical Kirchnerite officials and Fernández’s more moderate Cabinet allies.

"Do you seriously believe that it is not necessary, after such a defeat, to publicly present the resignations and that those in charge facilitate the president to organise his government?" Kirchner wrote in the letter, in which she criticised those who "cling to their chairs." 

Fernández de Kirchner finished her letter reminding Fernández that she personally picked him for the top job. 

“I just ask the president to honour that decision,” she said. 

After the letter went online, the president cancelled upcoming trips planned to Mexico and New York for the United Nations General Assembly, according to one of his spokesmen, who declined to comment on the letter itself. The president plans to announce new economic measures soon, the official added. 

The president called Thursday for his government to put aside "differences" as he vowed to “guarantee the unity” of the ruling coalition.

"This is not the time to raise disputes that distract us from this path," Fernández wrote on Twitter. "Governance will continue as I intend. That's what I was elected to do."

The problem is that both president and vice-president "do not trust each other and think that the other is keeping cards up his sleeve," said political analyst Carlos Fara.

 

– TIMES/PERFIL/AFP/BLOOMBERG

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