Norms and Values
Political Earthquake in Argentina: Judicial Meddling and Political Uncertainty

Recent events in Argentina and Latin America reveal that the traditional players and forces have lost the strategic political initiative, and are in permanent pursuit of readjusting the political map of the region in their favour, writes Argentine political scientist Juan Martin Gonzalez Cabañas.

In the context of yet another chapter of judicial meddling in the regional politics of Ibero-America, a new political earthquake is taking place in Argentina, one that produces great uncertainty due to the statements of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in which she argued that she would be willing to renounce the continuation of her public aspirations

The events

On December 6, 2022, in the context of an already-altered Argentine political map, another earthquake was added: The Federal Court N°2, in an unprecedented verdict, sentenced Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) to 6 years of imprisonment in addition to a life sentence of disqualification to hold public offices. Such a conviction would be the result of a trial for irregularities in public works (specifically in the southern province of Santa Cruz).

Due to its characteristics, this judicial decision is unprecedented.

At the procedural level, the trial is flawed by irregularities. This aspect is, unfortunately, very common in the Argentine justice system, one of the institutions in the country with the worst image in the public opinion. In this latter regard, the Argentine public has recently been made aware of very serious, scandalous events. 

These are the meetings at Lago Escondido and the football games at the hacienda “Los Abrojos”. At these scandalous gatherings and chats between judges, prosecutors, businessmen, and media operators, they openly plan judicial manoeuvres against political players in Argentina. Such levels of collusion undermine the fundamental principles of impartiality and transparency, principles that should govern the courts of the judiciary branch in a democracy. The latter events are irrefutable proof of the promiscuity and permeability of the judiciary institution to powers decoupled from the public interest and the general welfare as well as irrefutable proof of its corporative tendencies. Such incidents are evidence of what many Argentines already suspect and believe: that the judiciary is a caste. 

CFK’s response 

On the same day of the judiciary verdict, CFK replied with a speech in which, in addition to criticizing the sentence and denouncing the judiciary as a “Parallel State”, she stated that she would be absent from the Argentine political map, considering the legislative and presidential elections of 2023. 

CFK’s possible “withdrawal” only increases the uncertainty of an already disarrayed Argentine political map on the eve of next year’s elections. 

Political implications 

The major question in this new chapter of judicialisation of Argentine politics is whether or not CFK is excluded from it. Therefore, an analysis of the level of damage or transformation that may be caused by the premature (and forced?) withdrawal of the main Argentine political leader of at least the last 15 years must be carried out. 

In the event that CFK is excluded, how will the Argentine political map be ordered without its main protagonist of at least the last 15 years? A great compass would be lost; she has been a key figure for at least 20 years, to say the least. Who would be the main target of opposition criticism in Argentine politics, which is completely immersed in the logic of personalisation and high polarisation? 

Scenario forecasting 

The foregone scenarios presented are: the end of CFK’s electoral life (by decision or imposition), or an escalation of the confrontational political spectacularization so typical of our times. The latter would place CFK in an epic narrative of popular redemption, as has already happened in the cases of the forced ostracism of Perón, Lula and Correa. 

A hypothetical definitive withdrawal of CFK 

However, regarding the latter scenario, CFK’s reaction (a declaration of withdrawal from public life) could have been much more combative, considering such a legal-institutional measure. What is known at the moment is that CFK has excluded the possibility of an epic resistance plan. Her decision (at least temporarily) has left both players on the Argentine political map (the ruling party and the opposition) equally disoriented. 

In the aforementioned speech, CFK affirmed her position: she does not want third parties (both ruling and opposing parties) to benefit from her judicial predicament. Such statements by CFK should be taken seriously, and the corresponding prospective scenarios should be carried out. 

Recent Argentine political history has another case where a political renouncement implied a reset of the Argentine political leadership: Carlos Menem’s refusal to appear on the ballot in May 14, 2003. 

“Kirchnerismo” is the result of the 2001 financial crisis in Argentina and Menem’s withdrawal from the 2003 vote, and originated as a new faction within the Peronist movement and the Peronist “world” (although often in tension with it), of which it would be one of the dominant sectors until the present day (with some notable exceptions of competition within Peronism itself). 

Kirchnerism as a political phenomenon, to mention some of its most outstanding elements, was configured as a political platform more closely linked to the Centre-Left (as opposed to the classic Peronism position, which was more eclectic in its composition), and Progressivism, with an emotive national-popular narrative linked to progressive demands regarding topics such as human rights and minority rights, These political and cultural aspects were combined with an internal market economy project more traditional of classical Peronism. 

In addition to the aforementioned elements, the rhetoric and ideological baggage associated with the militant left of the 1960s and 1970s were also added (elements that on more than one occasion came into tension with the classic guidelines of Peronism). 

Due to a proactive internal market economy policy, the promotion of consumption, social assistance, and a good correlation of the terms of trade for Argentine exports, Kirchnerism managed to provide economic, social and political benefits to broad sectors of the popular classes, workers in the informal economy, salaried workers, as well as several sectors of the middle class. All these measures would gain Kirchnerismo great support and legitimacy in Argentine society, until the economic conditions which had been favourable to the Kirchnerist political project would be rapidly and strongly diluted starting in 2012. 

But turning back to the argument of a concrete withdrawal of CFK from the Argentine electoral and political map, the previous and most recent case of a significant withdrawal from the Argentine political scene, Menem’s refusal to participate in the 2003 elections, (in combination with the financial and political crisis of 2001) was a turning point for Argentine political leadership. 

This event marked the end of an entire political generation associated with the 1990s. The political renovation was significant: Kirchnerism and Macrism were the two emerging poles after Menem’s refusal to compete in the 2003 vote. 

If CFK is absent from the 2023 round of elections, both the ruling coalition, Frente de Todos, (known for political heterogeneity, but with great leaders such as CFK) as the opposition coalition, Juntos por el Cambios (also politically heterogeneous but anti-Kirchner), will have to face an arduous process of internal debate and strategic readjustment in order to avoid succumbing to the dispersion of energies. 

Moreover, in a much broader analysis, CFK’s absence would force the Peronist movement to pursue a necessary (and always postponed) process of leadership renewal and internal debate. 

Another scenario would be that of a CFK leader in the shadows, exerting influence without maintaining a formal presence on the Argentine political map. This isn’t an impossible scenario, but it’s highly improbable, considering the history of Argentine political leadership and the history of CFK. 

Finally, another aspect to highlight is that such a scenario of CFK’s withdrawal from the 2023 ballot could be an opportunity for third forces, such as libertarians and the left. Both forces offer an anti-establishment discourse and have seen progressive electoral growth; both could use the internal disputes between the ruling party and the opposition to add significant electoral support. 

But let us also discuss the possibility of an alternative scenario: an optical illusion, a smokescreen used by CFK to engage in a future counter-attack. 

A smokescreen to prepare a counter-attack 

Contemporary politics retains certain vestiges and elements of rationality (economic voting, for example), but also features some aspects of spectacularization (M. Edelman), which have been added and in some cases become practically dominant. 

When politics becomes a spectacle, it turns elections into stories of good guys versus bad guys (polarization), with protagonists and plots that increasingly resemble a mix between Latin American telenovelas and Game of Thrones-style palace intrigues. It sheds its utility as a debate about the merits of various ideas and party platforms to attract independent voters. Social networks have only deepened this dynamic. 

Therefore, the big issue of a definitive political renouncement by CFK is that, the history of CFK as a leader in general, and this year in particular (due to an assassination attempt and a judiciary conspiracy), already has elements of an epic plot. Such an already-established plot could be an opportunity to retake the strategic initiative after an apparent initial withdrawal. 

The development of such a plot of epic proportions is beyond CFK’s own decisions; when historical forces are set in motion they are very hard to stop. The judicial case against her is prolonged and slow, and if the political scenario in Argentina becomes more complicated for the government (Frente de Todos), and if both CFK’s supporters and the people in the streets start to agitate in her favour, it’s very hard to imagine her remaining indifferent. A scenario with such events would force CFK to review her stance, and potentially to retake the strategic initiative. 

But in this scenario, the great challenge for CFK would be to persuade her non-supporters that she is innocent. The strategies that CFK decides to implement in this respect would have transcendental implications. 

A broader analysis 

In a more regional and global analytical framework, this political earthquake in Argentina can be added to other destabilizing political processes present this year in Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia and Peru. 

In these times of struggle for global hegemonic transition, considering the latest events discussed in Argentina, as well as other present processes, the concern for the planning and execution of an Operation Condor 2.0 in Latin and South America is no less worrying. This is the very rear guard of the United States, the “champion” superpower of the international system since at least 1991. In principle, such a plan to rearrange the “pieces” would have a new format: hybrid warfare (disinformation, lawfare, economic warfare, political destabilisation, and support for opposition groups against governments considered “not sufficiently” obedient). 

Influence over Ibero-America is a major asset for the status of the United States as the undisputed global superpower, but as the empirical evidence demonstrates, at the economic level (China) and in other aspects such as the perception of public opinion (Russia), the U.S. cannot take its predominance over the region for granted. 

Recent events in Argentina and Latin America reveal that the traditional players and forces have lost the strategic political initiative, and are in permanent pursuit of readjusting the political map of the region in their favour, through the use of hermetic and enduring power structures, such as the judiciary branch.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.