The ires of March: a wave of protests in Argentina

By M B Gambarotta

Spin-doctors, especially in Argentina, can be complex characters. But at the end of the day the story they are spinning is pretty straightforward. Hear it out: President Mauricio Macri, the leader of the centre-right coalition Cambiemos, needs to win the midterm elections in October to consolidate his political position. If Macri’s coalition, which currently does not control Congress, loses then it will be in dire trouble and its future will be in serious doubt.

Lawmaker Elisa Carrió, an anti-corruption lawmaker who belongs to Cambiemos but voices criticism when she sees it fit, has taken the sense of urgency up a gear. Carrió has declared that if Cambiemos wins the midterm vote then the foreign investments Argentina needs will come flooding in. But turn Carrió’s statement inside out and what you get is that there are currently no investments to write home about.

The economy is not looking brilliant. That’s a problem for Cambiemos. Macri’s popularity, after announcing a series of unpopular utility rate hikes, has dropped — roughly from 60 to 40 percent.)You can now hear Macri’s strategists argue that he is still the most popular president in Latin America. That’s fair enough. But what Cambiemos needs is for Macri’s popularity not to collapse ahead of the elections.

The problem for the government is that there is now an outside chance that Macri’s approval ratings will indeed crumble. Thousands of teachers demonstrated on Monday outside Congress to demand better salaries. The teachers are locked in tough salary negotiations with provincial administrations. The wage bargaining includes Buenos Aires province, which is ruled by Governor María Eugenia Vidal who is a key Macri ally. Teaches in Buenos Aires province have been on strike all week claiming that salaries lost out to inflation last year. The Vidal administration has now offered a hike of 19 percent, which it says it will update automatically if inflation is higher.

Inflation in February clocked in at 2.5 percent. The president has insisted that inflation has slowed down in the last six months and that the government can still hit the target of an annual inflation rate of 17 percent. But at the same time the Central Bank has predicted “three difficult months” ahead for inflation. The government has decided to introduce planned utility rate hikes, designed to cut back on state subsidies, at a slower pace. Moderating the increases is a sign that Macri’s team is really concerned about the falling approval ratings. Yet the president has also underlined that there will be no drastic changes to his market-friendly economic policies, which he claims are designed to put right years of “populism” and will eventually sort out Argentina.

However there’s substantial backpedalling going on. The government has announced that a plan to open Argentina’s skies to low-cost airlines will momentarily not include Avianca. The Cambiemos administration came under fire because Avianca recently purchased Macair, a small Argentine air carrier owned by the Macri family.

The teachers’ strike is escalating. The conflict is not over and it has even hurt the popularity of Vidal, who according to polls is still the most popular politician in the land after pulling off an upset victory against the Peronist party machine in the general elections of 2015.

The labour unrest is palpable. The CGT, the nation’s largest trade union umbrella group, held a large demonstration on Tuesday outside the premises of the Production Ministry. Originally the demonstration was called to protest the loss of jobs in the industrial sector. But the protest snowballed and the three-man leadership of the CGT was expected to name a date for a general strike at the rally. The demonstration coincided with an appearance in court to face corruption charges by former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The former president told her supporters not to demonstrate outside the courthouse but to attend the CGT protest instead on the same day.

The turnout was larger than expected at the union rally. The three CGT leaders addressed the crowd, but fell short of naming at date for the general strike. Some demonstrators tried to chant the speakers down and demanded the call of a general strike right there and then. The three secretary generals were then heckled and had trouble leaving the stage. The bosses eventually managed to leave surrounded by bodyguards and with protesters shouting abuse. A group of demonstrators, presumably leftwing and Kirchnerite activists, then stormed the vacant stage to continue to demand a date for a general strike.

The shambolic end to the CGT rally left the impression that the union bosses were not completely in control of the situation. Critics accused the CGT troika of secret negotiations with the Macri administration. The violent scuffling at the end of the demonstration came as a bit of a blessing for Cambiemos because the public does not support trade union violence. But the CGT leaders were heckled by people who looked real enough. The situation brought back memories of 2001 when public opinion lost its patience with politicians in general during an economic meltdown. The CGT has been left with practically no choice and is expected to call a general strike for early next month.

You can bet Macri’s team got the message from the teachers and CGT rallies. There is nothing naive about the president and his squad. Macri was scheduled to grant at least two television interviews today (Sunday) in a bid to regain the initiative.

The president’s mission is clear enough: he must control the damage and prevent his popularity from dropping further head of the elections. Macri must then get his electioneering right and name suitable candidates for a difficult campaign, which finds Cambiemos suddenly on the defensive. Part of the problem is Carrió, who apparently is intent on running for Congress in Buenos Aires province against the wishes of Cambiemos’ strategists. Macri’s mission in not impossible. But other president’s before him have failed before him.

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