When Argentina’s new president Mauricio Macri assumed office last month, he did so with a promise to observe the rules of democracy and to open dialogue with the opposition, casting himself in sharp contrast to his populist predecessorCristina Fernández de Kirchner.
But one month into his government, Macri has already drawn fierce criticism for bypassing congress with a rapid succession of controversial presidential decrees to push through measures including the appointment of two new justices to the supreme court and the overturning of Fernández’s media law, which she had designed to reduce the size of the Clarín media conglomerate.
The new justice minister, Germán Garavano, defended the decrees as “emergency measures” while the country’s congress was on its summer recess, but they have been roundly criticised as anti-democratic.
“Not even Cristina Kirchner did anything so absurd,” said one of Argentina’s chief constitutional experts, Daniel Sabsay, of the supreme court appointments. The appointments legally require approval by the Senate, which could have been convened for an extraordinary session, an option Macri seemingly ruled out because its majority is still held by Fernández’s Victory Front (FPV) party.
Macri officials say the heavy-handed approach was necessary because of the disarray left over from the Fernández administration. “We have spent the first three weeks putting out fires,” says Macri adviser Hernán Iglesias Illa. “These decrees were simply necessary, it’s not part of any great conspiracy. In the case of the supreme court two of the five justices had left the court and it can’t function with just three.”
Macri finally delayed the appointments until February, but the unprecedented move left a bitter taste in the mouths of even his supporters. “I’m very saddened because everything Macri had done had moved me almost to tears but this horrifies me,” said Sabsay.
Macri assumed the presidency on 10 December , casting himself in sharp contrast with Fernández, who refused press interviews and took her decisions in solitude but still maintained high approval ratings up until her last day in office.
Conscious of having won by only a slim margin, Macri promised a new era of political amity in contrast with Fernández, who showed her political adversaries little mercy.
“We want everybody to play a part, people who feel themselves to be on the right and people who feel on the left, Peronists and anti-Peronists,” said Macri, referring to the movement founded by former president Juan Perón in 1946 to which Fernández belongs.
It was a promise of unity that sat well with his voters, upset by the politically divisive style of Fernández, whose populist economics and authoritarian reflexes split Argentina practically down the middle
But it is a promise of dialogue that some observers have begun to feel still remains unfulfilled. “Sitting down to talk is not enough for a political dialogue,” said political columnist Beatriz Sarlo during an interview on the TN news channel. “Fundamental questions need to be the object of that dialogue,” Sarlo said, criticising Macri for appointing supreme court justices by decree without prior consensus.
On the economic front, however, Macri seems set for smoother sailing with a sharp team of young economists at the helm.
On Thursday, the economy minister, Alfonso Prat-Gay, said the government was aiming for an inflation rate of between 20% and 25% this year – which would be an improvement on 2015’s estimated 30%. His team expects to obtain international credit and investments to replenish the empty state coffers left by Fernández.
An agreement is also expected during the first half of the year with the US “vulture funds” that are claiming $1.3bn from Argentina. Fernández had refused to negotiate with them.
Business has welcomed Macri’s removal of export taxes on soy and other major agricultural exports, coupled with the removal of foreign exchange controls that hindered trade and financial transactions.
Macri’s success will depend on the economy. Unions are already flexing their muscles to demand wage hikes to offset inflation. Argentina’s only two other non-Peronist presidents since the return of democracy in 1983 both failed to complete their terms due to economic upheavals and social unrest fanned by Peronist union bosses.