Politics

President appeals to middle classes in State of the Union

5th March 2020

By Amadeo Gandolfo

President appeals to middle classes in State of the Union

The Peronist party base has historically been among the poor, but Alberto Fernández’s first State of the Union address before Congress last Sunday seemed more tailored for the middle classes.

Touting progressive and liberal reforms, the President appealed to his young, urban, center-left base announcing a bill to legalize abortion, as well as to a broader professional upper-middle class that is more skeptical of him, promising a transparent, non-partisan State, and praising its historical leaders such as former president Raúl Alfonsín.

</p> <p>Such a wide and consistent appeal to middle class values could be seen as an attempt to seduce the vast swathes of it that were put off by the more confrontational tone of his VP Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, particularly during her second term as president between 2011 and 2015. That term was often seen as disdainful of opposing views, as well as neglecting some of the elements of a modern socially-liberal agenda.</p> <p>The change in tone does not mean a break with that past, but a change in approach and method. Fernández’s first yearly address to the Congress was read next to his VP Fernández de Kirchner, and also used elements of her term as building blocks for his politics. An example of that is the central role given to scientists and academics, another middle-class professional bloc (but one that was much more favored by the Fernández de Kirchner administration when compared to that of Mauricio Macri), whom Fernández mentioned repeatedly as the experts through which he would build his policy.</p> <h2><strong>A wide variety of rights</strong></h2> <p>Fernández’s speech was framed in the language of rights. He emphasized the commitment of Argentina to human rights, defended the rights of those who have less, and promised to guarantee and expand them among sectors where they weren’t properly granted.</p> <p>Critics would argue that this was a way to mask the lack of concrete economic announcements, especially with regards to the middle class he is courting, as the country’s purse remains tight while foreign debt re-negotiations are ongoing. But the idea of Argentina as a country in which rights are defended is also dear to a significant part of that middle class.</p> <p>The speech was littered with references to former president Raúl Alfonsín, sometimes nicknamed “the father of democracy”, whose historical standing as the first post-dictatorship president made him a referent of republicans, centrists and social democrats. Even though his term ended very poorly amid out-of-control hyperinflation, Alfonsín’s role pushing to prosecute dictatorship-era crimes, legalizing divorce and restoring other civil liberties means he is still a popular leader even among members of the rival Cambiemos coalition, one of whose three member parties Alfonsín used to lead.</p> <p>With all this in mind, it was no surprise when the biggest ovation of his speech came with the announcement that he would send a bill to legalize abortion within the next ten days, a move that is especially popular in city centers, though not so much in the poor provinces of the north.</p> <p>This will be the first time in Argentine history that a bill legalizing abortion is proposed by the executive branch of power. The word legalization (and not just decriminalization) is significant, as that is the most desired outcome for the feminist movement that made this issue a national cause. It will be the second time in three years that a similar project is discussed in Congress, although the backing of the government could make the difference for it to pass in both chambers this time.</p> <p>Other statements linked to women and gender rights included a progressive sex education program in public schools and an infant care plan for the first thousand days of life.</p> <h2><strong>A new state</strong></h2> <p>Fernández’s announcement of a judicial reform could also be seen as an attempt to court the middle classes, although distrust in the legal system runs across all of Argentine society.  The judiciary is the federal power with the lowest approval amongst Argentines, most of whom <a href="https://www.lanacion.com.ar/politica/la-confianza-en-la-justicia-se-desplomo-desde-que-el-macrismo-llego-al-poder-nid2121557">distrust it</a>. Fernández also announced the creation of a new court focused on drug-related crimes in Santa Fe province, as concerns over gang violence are on the rise since the change of government.</p> <p>This judiciary reform is part of a wider ambition of state reform. Fernández also mentioned the launch of a “corps of governmental administrators”, an attempt to professionalize the career of public servant with the aim of producing more informed and efficient bureaucrats. He also mentioned a continued push towards digitalization of state affairs and the creation of an agency to evaluate the “impact of public policies”.</p> <p>The announcements seem to be partly aimed at restoring the faith of the middle classes in the State and its public servants, offering a more modern version of Peronism to try to recover the trust they lost during the late Kirchnerite years. The task sounds like an uphill one, as the “grieta” (divide) between Peronists and anti-Peronists only widened over the last decade, but Fernández is nevertheless trying to show that the Argentine state can be a non-partisan actor, where corruption is more the exception than the norm.</p> <h2><strong>“A government of scientists”</strong></h2> <p>A final noteworthy quote was of the State of the Union address was that of aiming at an “administration of scientists, not CEOs”, a jab at Mauricio Macri’s preferred talent pool to look for officials, which also seems to signal that Alberto Fernández will delve into Argentina’s universities and research centers to staff his government instead.</p> <p><a href="https://www.pagina12.com.ar/249571-inedita-convocatoria-a-investigadores-del-conicet-para-gober">Many</a> leading figures of the academic and scientific community are already a part of the administration, and one of the first measures of Fernández was a hike <a href="https://www.pagina12.com.ar/242205-aumento-progresivo-para-becas-del-conicet">doctoral scholarships</a> and <a href="https://www.clarin.com/sociedad/gobierno-duplicara-ingresos-conicet-aumentara-subsidios-investigacion_0_FKADD0jp.html">public</a> research positions.</p> <p>Researchers in Argentina are also part of the country’s professional pool, and the sector became a source of pride for the same educated and progressive middle classes that values free public university education. A career in CONICET, the country’s public scientific agency, is seen as a desirable and prideful fate for the sons of the professional middle class. Fernández seems decided to tip his hat to them and employ their skills. After years of conflict with former president Macri over funding for their agencies, the alliance with Fernández now seems to be inevitable.</p> <p>What seems to be also emerging is the idea of building a “rational” type of government, based on evidence and academic knowledge, although more leaning towards the social side of academia than the business and market policymakers preferred under Macri.</p> <p>

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Amadeo Gandolfo

Amadeo Gandolfo is an historian, journalist and researcher. He has worked at the CONICET (National Council For Scientific and Technical Research), writes at the Revista Crisis magazine and teaches at the University of Buenos Aires.