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Argentina’s president is on a mission to gain “superpowers”.
Buoyed by comfortable majorities in both houses of Congress, Néstor Kirchner is assured smooth passage for two new laws allowing the executive to alter budget spending without congressional approval and normalising its ability to use emergency executive decrees.
Both powers were used by former economy minister Domingo Cavallo during the 2001 crisis, but Mr Kirchner’s bid to enshrine them as permanent tools in his kit has provoked fierce criticism from the opposition, academia, constitutional experts and the media. But the opposition, is proving too weak to block the bills.
As in the case of a law pushed through this year to alter Argentina’s judicial council, which was criticised for damaging the independence of the judiciary, the bills face little resistance.
Already passed by the senate, the bill concerning decrees – which cannot be used for changing laws concerning tax, punishment, political parties or electoral systems, but have in the past been used for pensions, social spending, energy problems, natural disasters and public sector pay – was expected to be approved by the lower house by close of business on Thursday.
The “superpowers” bill, to enhance budgetary powers, is expected to become law on August 2. While Mr Kirchner’s administration says the “superpowers” will simply allow it to govern more efficiently, the opposition says they confirm a trend towards the concentration of power in the executive. It says Argentina has moved on from the 2001 economic crisis that justified the original extraordinary budgetary powers – powers that current government officials, then in opposition, had voted against.
Mauricio Macri, the leader of the centre-right Commitment for Change party, likens Mr Kirchner’s bid to increase power to former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori’s infamous “self-coup” in 1992, in which he successfully wrested power from his own government.
“The Fujimori effect is due to the virtual closure of Congress, with the loss of all its power to make any real decisions. It’s really a ‘Fujimori-plus’, as it has the support of his party, which assents to the destruction of the system of the division of powers,” he told the Financial Times.
“The power in the hands of the president now has no precedent in democratic governments in Argentina, and shows that his association with President [Hugo] Chávez of Venezuela is not only out of self-interest, but also ideological,” said Mr Macri, indicating that Mr Chávez had bought more than $3bn of Argentine debt in the past year.
Mr Kirchner pours scorn on the opposition’s criticisms. “They don’t want to let me govern,” he says, while admitting to being “ashamed” of his opposition, who he accuses of “extortion” and merely wanting to be able to secure favours.
He and his wife, Cristina Fernandez – the senator who introduced the legislation and who is widely expected to run for president in the next elections if Mr Kirchner decides not to seek a second term – have spent time attacking criticisms from the press, which they regard as an “unelected opposition”.
“The opposition’s criticisms are completely invented and make no sense . . . Today the problem is not the government – it is the opposition that is having problems,” says Jorge Capitanich, a senator from Mr Kirchner’s party. He believes the powers are needed to combat poverty despite high economic growth. “The important thing is not to confuse administrative problems with political problems.”
Mr Capitanich says the laws do not allow a greater overall level of spending or to increase the level of indebtedness – the greater majority of the budget goes towards social security and public sector wages which cannot be altered.
The critics are not so sure. “Next year is an electoral year. One could believe that with these superpowers they are going to use this public money in a discretionary manner – I hope not, but these laws permit this to happen,” said Ernesto Sanz, leader of the Radical party in the Senate.
“The new laws violate the national constitution in our opinion,” he says. “They are removing power from congress to increase the discretional use of power in the government. That is very dangerous in any country, but all the more so in Argentina where institutions are weak,” said Mr Sanz. Ricardo Rouvier, a pollster and political scientist, says Mr Kirchner’s scheme is nothing new in Argentina: “The concentration of power is very characteristic of Argentine political culture.”
However, given the government’s high levels of popularity and the lack of a threatening opposition, he argues: “It cannot be justified, unless the government can see an enemy that the rest of us can’t see. I understand the argument of making the executive more efficient . . . But the fact is that governability is not in danger.”