Politics

Fernández finds leadership opportunity in COVID-19 crisis

26th March 2020

By Amadeo Gandolfo

Fernández finds leadership opportunity in COVID-19 crisis

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Alberto Fernández rose to prominence suddenly. Less than a year ago, he was a not-too-well known politician when former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner nominated him as her presidential candidate, and many feared her figure would loom large as the real power behind the curtain, as Fernández struggled with a divided country and a base that was not originally loyal to him.

But the coronavirus crisis has emerged as Fernández’s big opportunity to rise as the country’s leader. With no big political figure showing any significant objection to his handling of the emergency and all eyes focused on the crisis, the President has been taking swift decisions over the past two weeks and making daily appearances in the media, either to speak in the country’s most popular shows or to address the population directly.

Fernández’s announcement of a total lockdown had TV ratings near those of an Argentine world cup match (60 vs 70), and the first polls have shown a high approval of his handling of the crisis, in which Fernández showed a range of responses that could appeal to a broad political audience, from economic aid to the poor to a hard line against those violating the restrictions.

But the challenges ahead remain massive, with the economy at increased risk of collapse and the potential of a health crisis still looming, so it is still too early to categorize this as a political victory for the incumbent.

Opposition takes the backseat

The crisis has also seen an unheard-of coordination between the city of Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires Province and the executive branch of the national government. The announcement of the closure of schools on the 15th of March saw BA City Mayor Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, arguably the main figure of the opposition today, sitting next to Alberto Fernández, nodding. Cooperation between these jurisdictions has been rarely harmonious, even when the three branches of government belonged to the same party during the years of the Cambiemos coalition.

The rapprochement between opposition and government has seen many members of Cambiemos applaud and align behind Fernández.

Mario Negri, the leader of the Cambiemos coalition caucus in the House of Representatives, called Fernández “the commander of this battle” and offered him the full support of the opposition, while Adolfo Rubinstein, the last Public Health Minister under Cambiemos, appeared on one of the country’s most popular political shows saying the presidential response was “correct, right and timely”, making a positive overall assessment of the administration’s decisions.

“Today, the only opposition is coronavirus,” Cristian Ritondo, the leader of former president Mauricio Macri’s party in the House of Representatives, said in an interview.

With the country’s upper and middle classes, often closer to the Cambiemos opposition than to the Peronist government, showing almost universal concern about the virus, it seems like the coronavirus crisis has given Fernández an opportunity to achieve one of his biggest goals: the closure of the “grieta” (“crack” or “divide” in Spanish), at least for the time being, as political and societal divisions are put by the side to face a common enemy.

National leader

The crisis has given Fernández’s positive image a boost among the population, similar to other world leaders. Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s Prime Minister, who seemed on his way out prior to the crisis, has seen approval ratings soar to 71%, higher than any other Italian PM in ten years. Donald Trump is also seeing a spike in approval, with 49% according to Gallup, the highest since taking office. The only leader who seems to be falling is Jair Bolsonaro. On the 23rd of March just 35% of Brazilians approved of his handling of the crisis, against 55% who approved of his Health Minister’s more cautious approach.

Alberto Fernández currently has 65% approval regarding his handling of the crisis, according to Córdoba-based consulting firm CB. According to another poll, the positive image of the President is above 60%, with only 28% holding a negative view of him.

The numbers also seem to confirm an eclipse of Vice President Fernández de Kirchner. She has been mainly absent, choosing to travel to Cuba to repatriate her daughter, who had been undergoing medical treatment there. This decision has been heavily criticized by some, with the poll conducted by CB showing 70% disapproval of it.

Overall, however, the concerns about any divisions between the President and her VP have been mostly absent over the last few weeks.

Risks of a boomerang

Still, Fernández’s prominence as the main figure in the coronavirus crisis is not without political risks.

First and foremost, there’s the economic consequences. In an already highly fragile and volatile economy such as Argentina’s, the halting of economic activities has immediate dire effects. This is why the economic strategy of the administration has had to shift from a cautious use of the budget to an injection of money to keep the vast sectors of informal workers afloat, as they see their income heavily reduced due to the suppression strategy adopted against the virus. The $10000 pesos bonus for self-employed workers, a suspension of service cuts for six months for vulnerable sectors, and the suspension of credit card obligations and banking debts until the 31st of March are among the decisions to protect those at highest risk.

The question is how long can the Argentine economy sustain such measures. If the quarantine extends past what’s tolerable for the citizenship and the state and private firms’ finances, Fernández’s prominent role could backfire and take a toll in the administration’s positive image.

The other danger is the collapse of the health system. The government’s strategy is aimed at curtailing those odds, but the Argentine health system, whilst strong when compared to other South American nations, still sorely lacks the resources, ICUs and respirators necessary for an explosive growth of cases.

Finally, there’s security-related concerns. The specter of looting and riots hangs heavily over the always volatile Province of Buenos Aires, where the majority of the vulnerable population lives. If such cases were to occur, the administration would have to choose between a crackdown, which would tarnish its desire to be seen as an administration that cares for the poor, and a lenient hand, which would cost it positive points among the middle and upper classes.

Fernandez could be set to either win big or lose big in this process, as he has decided to be the face of it. Any forecast in such an unprecedented scenario would be adventurous, but it’s clear that a lot of his political future lies at stake with this crisis.

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.