In Argentina, a Political Marriage of Convenience Comes Undone

BUENOS AIRES — A political marriage of convenience that once appeared to be a stroke of genius is unraveling as Argentina’s president and vice president trade blame over their party’s tumbling fortunes.

President Alberto Fernández on Monday replaced several ministers after a striking broadside by his vice president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who blamed her boss for the bruising defeat their party took in primary elections this month.

The public spat deepened doubts that the pair leading a nation saddled by debt, poverty and a sputtering economy can govern effectively. It also renewed interest in a question that has loomed large since 2019, when Mrs. Kirchner, a former president, hatched a plan to return to power by putting Mr. Fernández at the top of the ticket: Who is actually in charge?

Tensions between the two came to a head after candidates from their party performed dismally in the Sept. 12 primary elections, raising the prospect that the ruling coalition could lose its solid majority in Congress in November’s midterm election.

Mrs. Kirchner termed the outcome a “political catastrophe” in a statement issued late last week on her personal website, and called for heads to roll. In the statement, Mrs. Kirchner portrayed herself as a marginalized figure in Mr. Fernández’s cabinet whose warnings about the political impact of austerity policies went unheeded.

Mrs. Kirchner handpicked Mr. Fernández to lead their electoral ticket because she faced several corruption cases that had badly damaged her political brand.Credit…Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

The vice president lashed out against prominent figures in the administration, including the spokesman, and complained about internal maneuvers to sabotage her. “It’s a shame that there has been so much self-inflicted damage,” she wrote.

As he took stock of the electoral setback, Mr. Fernández did little to hide his displeasure with his vice president in posts on social media and remarks to a journalist.

“Pomposity and arrogance are not traits of mine,” the president wrote in a message that was interpreted as a retort to Mrs. Kirchner. “I will continue to govern in the manner that I deem suitable.”

The finger-pointing and the cabinet reshuffle — which spared the ministers who run economic policy — did little to clarify how the government will tackle the severe problems it faces, including rising poverty, inflation and unemployment.

“In order to lead a political process in the middle of a crisis, you need two elements: central authority, so the president doesn’t have to consult on every decision he makes, and second, a clear path,” said Lucas Romero, the head of Synopsis, a local political consulting firm. “Now you don’t have either of these two things.”

Mrs. Kirchner, who led Argentina from 2007 to 2015, handpicked Mr. Fernández to lead their electoral ticket because she faced several corruption cases that had badly damaged her political brand. Mr. Fernández was a constitutional law professor and political operative who had never before sought major electoral office.

Now, political analysts say, as voters sour on Mr. Fernández, Mrs. Kirchner appears to be seeking to be seen as a blameless outsider.

“She was trying to detach herself from the electoral defeat,” said Mariel Fornoni, the director of Management and Fit, a political consultancy. “But in the process, she ended up debilitating the president’s leadership.”

The primaries made clear that the coalition government that won a commanding victory two years ago has lost its shine.

Some of the country’s problems would have been tough for any leader to manage. Argentina’s devastating Covid-19 toll deepened a yearslong economic recession and made it hard to get inflation under control.

But there have been preventable scandals, too.

Mr. Fernández’s government came under criticism after well-connected figures were given off-the-books early access to coronavirus vaccines. The president was also taken to task over photographs showing him attending a birthday party the first lady, Fabiola Yáñez, held in the presidential residence when the country was on lockdown.

Mrs. Kirchner and Mr. Fernández after their inauguration in 2019.Credit…Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

The cabinet changes that took effect on Monday, which involved Mr. Fernández’s cabinet chief (who became foreign minister) and four other ministers, opened the door for the return of several figures who were once part of Mrs. Kirchner’s administration.

Andrés Malamud, an Argentine political scientist at the University of Lisbon, said the moves were unlikely to bring about meaningful change. He said it was essentially a political gambit.

“The team they set up isn’t to govern for two years,” he said. “It’s to recover votes in key provinces so they can then set up another cabinet in December.”

But by focusing on their internal fights within the coalition, the president and his allies appear to be missing the real message from voters, analysts warn.

“What they did shows that they didn’t understand that people are tired of the political wheeling and dealing that leaves them as hostages to these decisions,” Ms. Fornoni said.

Julián Sanchez, a 44-year-old retail worker in Buenos Aires, said the events of the past week had made him more pessimistic about his country’s future.

“They’re all fighting against each other rather than trying to solve the disaster they created,” he said. “Everyone I know has trouble getting to the end of the month.”

Daniel Politi reported from Buenos Aires and Ernesto Londoño reported from Rio de Janeiro.

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