Lost in the post

By M B Gambarotta

Supporters of President Mauricio Macri, the leader of the centre-right coalition Cambiemos (Let’s Change), are doing a lot of talking about the “unforced errors” committed by the administration. The government is packed with brilliant spin doctors who managed to get Macri elected president in the first place in 2015 against the odds. But suddenly Macri and his “team” are all about controlling the damage and not losing the raging argument in the social media networks. The good news for Macri is that when damage is done it can be controlled.

Presumably this is what the president was trying to do when he called a press conference in Government House on Thursday after his administration came under fire over a financial settlement with a Macri family company that managed the Post Office until 2003. The Post Office case was all over the news once it surfaced that a prosecutor had called the terms of the agreement “abusive.” Critics claimed that the Macri family was paying too little too late for the collapse of the Post Office it once managed privately. It’s been clear for a couple of weeks that the Macri administration took a hit. Marcos Peña, the president’s Cabinet chief, and Communications Minister Oscar Aguad had also called a press conference to explain the case.

Peña, Macri’s trusted marketing expert, insisted that the Post Office accord was “technical” and “judicial” — not political. Aguad said the president had no direct involvement in the deal because his family business was involved. But questioned remained after Peña and Aguad spoke. Mainly because the conflict of interest looked evident to the critics in the opposition. Aguad had told the press that, even when the president did not have full details, he had asked for an agreement to be hammered out. Aguad also said that he had cleared the issue with Peña before going ahead.

Here then is a question. Will the Post Office case hurt Peña’s dominant standing in the administration? The Peña and Aguad press conference was not enough. Before the end of the week it was Macri who was fielding the tough questions about the Post Office. To make matters even more harrowing the government was also getting massacred over a decision by the social security agency, ANSES, to alter slightly the way is calculates the automatic increase for pensions twice a year. ANSES’ tweak meant that pensioners (and others on social welfare) were getting 0.3 percent less in the first increase of 2017. The first automatic increase of the year announced was 12.65 percent. The problem for Macri’s executives was that news about the reduction swirled through the Lower House just when it was debating the reform to the ART labour accidents insurance system.

The ANSES change wrong-footed Macri’s lawmakers in the Lower House just when they had clinched the backing of part of the oppostion to approve the ART reform. Macri had signed an executive order decreeing the labour accidents insurance reform even when it had already cleared the Senate, which is controlled by the opposition party. Yet the president had to withdraw the ART decree because the opposition was poised to reject it in the bicameral committee in charge of overseeing executive orders in Congress.

Why did Macri choose to issue a decree when it looked like the reform was going to be approved in Congress? There is growing speculation in the opposition that the president’s approach is to see with how much he can get away with politically. Macri does not have a problem backpedalling if the outcry grows loud. That’s what happened with the change to the pension hike calculation. The outrage in the Lower House was loud and it included lawmaker Elisa Carrió, the anti-corruption crusader who is a member of the ruling coalition but who often voices criticism about what she considers irregularities. According to some calculations the government was pocketing three billion pesos by paying that 0.3 percent less tot he pensioners. Mario Quintana, a top Macri administration official with direct access to the president, moaned that the government was being criticized over “20 pesos” less the pensioners were going to get paid. Carrió fired back that 20 pesos is money to somebody on a minimum pension. The row over the pensions deflected some of the fallout from the Post Office case, which had left Carrió in awkward position. Carrió did not condemn the Post Office accord outright, but her party issued a statement declaring that it was looking at the situation. The ART reform was approved by the Lower House.

The Post Office case and the notion that the pensioners were being short-changed were all over the news when the president faced the press in the Pink House. Macri quickly told reporters that the pension reduction had been quashed, but will the subject of further “debate.” The Post Office case, he said, would go back to square one in court. The president’s bid to control the damage was daring because he fielded difficult questions at the press conference (something rarely done by President Cristina Fenrández de Kirchner while she was in office.) Macri displayed manners under pressure. Some legal experts have declared that the president does not have the power to terminate a case that is going through court just like that. But the Macri press conference, in which he admitted to being fallible, will suffice to put an end to the scandal in the short-term. Yet the president and Aguad are now under investigation in court over the deal with the Macri family company.

Still Macri now can’t afford to make too many more “mistakes.” The constant backpedalling could be a sign that the opposition is getting a hang of the ruling coalition’s approach. The bank clerks’ union had called a 72 hour strike claiming that the Labour Ministry had refused to approve a salary agreement that it had reached the bankers. The strike was lifted after the annual increase of roughly 24 percent was approved.

The Labour Ministry had a problem with the bank clerks’ increase because the government is trying to hit an annual inflation rate of 18 percent this year. Some observers say that the only way in which the government can hit that target is by convincing the trade unions to wage agreements no higher than 18 percent. Another difficult salary negotiation is currently taking place between the provincial administrations and the teachers’ unions.

Next month will see the General Labour Confederation (CGT) holding a protest march. The CGT, the nation’s largest trade union grouping, has also announced a general strike in March (without naming a specific date.) The turbulence surrounding the midterm elections will be worse if the economic progress Macri has promised fails to materialize. Cambiemos, the president’s coalition, will have to hammer out some complicated political agreements to stick together in some provinces. The difficult negotiations involve the Radical Party, which is part of Cambiemos but at the same time seems to have its own political ambitions in Buenos Aires City and Santa Fe province.

In the middle of all this Macri was on the phone to US President Donald Trump on Wednesday. (Macri and Trump coincidentally held press conferences on the same day on Thursday). Trump’s conversation with Macri came on the same day he met in the White House with Lilian Tintori, wife of the jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López. Macri on Friday fiercely criticized Venezuela’s leftist government declaring that it was “not a democracy.” A US government statement described Macri as an important “regional leader.” Macri and Trump are both businessmen who have known each other personally for decades. What could now unite them is the Trump administration’s condemnation of Venezuela’s Bolivarian rulers. A meeting between Trump and Macri is now likely to take place as soon as April.

Until now the president had not been under so much pressure concerning negative stories since he took office in December 2015. But the margin of error is now tighter. Getting on with Trump will have its advantages. But the US president’s unpredictability could be a problem for Macri.

Argentina’s leaders have historically being plagued by negative stories. Fernández de Kirchner, Macri’s predecessor, is no different. General César Milani, who served a army chief under Fernández de Kirchner, was arrested on Friday on accusations of committing human rights violations during the last military dictatorship.

Everybody — and that includes Fernández de Kirchner, Macri and Peña — makes mistakes. The question is what will voters make of those fumbles in an election year.