Argentina’s president tries to contain fallout from lockdown party photos

Reports of illicit visits to Argentina’s presidential residence had trickled out for weeks, ranging from a hairdresser for first lady Fabiola Yañez to a trainer for President Alberto Fernández’s dog Dylan.

But the recent leak of a photograph of Fernández smiling alongside a dozen other attendees at an indoor, maskless and after-curfew celebration of Yañez’s birthday in July last year has now put the government on the defensive.

Fernández’s management of the pandemic has been under fire for more than a year. After imposing some of the world’s tightest restrictions on travel, business and schooling, cases and deaths per capita still soared.

A scandal in February over well-connected government insiders jumping the queue for vaccinations led to the resignation of health minister Ginés González García. 

But the latest uproar over the visits — which occurred during the most stringent phase of Argentina’s Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020, when thousands of shops were closed and movement was extremely limited — has the potential to cause even more political damage, coming less than a month before citizens go to the polls for midterm primaries that could sway the balance of power in the lower house of Congress.

In signs of growing frustration with the administration, a group of protesters carried thousands of stones with the names of Covid victims to the front of the Casa Rosada presidential palace last week, while impeachment proceedings were also launched against the president.

Government allies leaked remaining footage from the party in response, hoping the scandal would run its course over the coming days, instead of being hit again with new leaks on the week of the election.

“I realise [the birthday party] shouldn’t have happened,” Fernández said in a public apology earlier this month. “I’m sorry that it did, and it won’t happen again.”

Stones with the names of Covid victims were placed outside Casa Rosada © AFP via Getty Images

Mariel Fornoni, director of the M&F consultancy agency, said Fernández’s declining approval ratings — down from a peak of 57 per cent at the start of the lockdown to 34 per cent currently — will make shoring up his support in Congress and among the public a more difficult task.

“The government needs a victory to rebuild its weakened leadership before the last two years of its term, while in the opposition camp any winners could go on to launch their 2023 presidential bids,” Fornoni said.

Though impeachment is extremely unlikely to succeed given the solid majority held by Fernández’s Peronist party in the Senate, the momentum shift was enough to prompt Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — the former president and current vice-president who is widely believed to be the real power in the current administration — to break her usual public silence.

“Don’t get angry or nervous, Alberto, because when you are the president of a people’s government, any mistakes or transgressions are magnified and exacerbated to rile people, while those who sell out the country are shamelessly shielded from scrutiny,” Fernández de Kirchner said in remarks from the working-class neighbourhood of Isla Maciel, in the outskirts of Greater Buenos Aires, the centre of her support.

It is there that the forthcoming midterm elections will be decided. The party that wins the Buenos Aires province, home to roughly one-third of the Argentine population, is generally crowned by the press as the winner of any Argentine midterm — especially when the outcome does not favour the Peronists, who are generally the local frontrunners.

Primaries in Argentina are scheduled for September 12, with midterm elections two months later on November 14, when half the lower house and a third of the Senate will be elected. The unusual election system, with mandatory voting for the primary as well as the election proper, means that primaries can predict final results reasonably accurately, as they did in 2019.

The Peronist duo of Fernández and Fernández de Kirchner still have advantages, most notably their united front, which was not the case in previous losses.

They are also trying to shift voters’ focus back to the macroeconomic collapse during the past two years of Mauricio Macri’s presidency, arguing that the opposition is using the pandemic to change the subject.

“First, they said the vaccines wouldn’t work, now they are trying to make it all about this picture that no one liked. We need to convince voters that, now that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, the biggest danger is having a second wave of Macri’s policies,” Leopoldo Moreau, a lawmaker and ally of Fernández de Kirchner running for a new term in Buenos Aires province, told the Financial Times.

Both sides will have an uphill struggle to lure a populace that is growing increasingly wary of politics, having failed to put a halt to skyrocketing inflation, the top concern of most Argentines, during their time in charge.

“People are very angry with politicians,” Fornoni said. “A quarter of the population is simply refusing to answer any phone surveys as soon as they find out it’s about politics, up from the usual 10 per cent.”

An opinion poll from her M&F agency showed that 91 per cent of those surveyed were aware of the presidential residency scandal, with one-fifth saying it could influence their vote.

While she thinks those numbers will inevitably come down in the coming weeks, they were still unusually high when compared with the typical corruption scandal.

“This at least strikes a chord with the families of those that could not say goodbye to their loved ones. It could be the last straw for some, in a context in which six out of ten Argentines are already pessimistic about the future of the country,” Fornoni said.

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