Who dares to run for the Casa Rosada?

There are still two years to go before the next elections are due in Argentina But the race to be the next president is already causing strain within the country's Peronist elite

President Cristina Fernández has yet to trigger the reform that would allow her to run for a third term.
President Cristina Fernández has yet to trigger the reform that would allow her to run for a third term.D. FERNÁNDEZ (EFE)

The race for the Casa Rosada has reached such a level of suspense that it could well be described as fascinating and depressing at the same time, even though there are still two years to go before the next president of Argentina is elected.

It is fascinating because all eyes are trained on a man who is very slowly revealing his intentions to run. This politician might let the chance of a lifetime pass him by, or he might ride the train that leads to the seat of government. All will be revealed by Wednesday, the deadline for presenting alliances for the legislative elections of October. But it is also depressing because nobody is talking about ideas, projects or programs. Just names.

There are three main candidates in the running. The one with the biggest footprint, at least in terms of media coverage, continues to be President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Argentina's Constitution forbids her from a third term in office, but that is not stopping high-ranking government officials from suggesting it every other day; this would involve a constitutional reform approved by two-thirds of Congress. Last Thursday, Chief of Staff Juan Manuel Abal Medina stated: "I wouldn't hand over the continuity of this model to anybody other than our presidenta. I cannot think of any name other than Cristina's to continue to head up the model."

For now, the opposition has no candidate with a good winning chance. So the second force to reckon with is Daniel Scioli, governor of Buenos Aires province - the wealthiest, most populated and most decisive of all Argentinean provinces in any presidential election.

I wouldn't hand over this model to anybody other than our 'presidenta'"

Scioli is also the Peronist politician who has suffered the greatest amount of public humiliation, challenges, provocations, financial suffocation, criticism and reproach from the late President Néstor Kirchner, his widow and current leader Cristina Fernández, and their ministers. He is also the one who has dealt with it all the most adroitly. Scioli is a respectable chess player who cultivates the art of handling the current times dispassionately. Until now his strategy appears to have worked, since until recently the race looked like it would go to the candidate who remained the most still, made the fewest mistakes and refused to get caught up in challenges.

But the rules of any game can change. Last week, President Fernández again tried to get under Scioli's skin. On May 30, at a televised event in which both were present, Fernández stated that she was tired of being taken for an idiot. And she made a reference to the floods in La Plata, a city under Scioli's jurisdiction, where in April over 50 residents died while he was away.

"When a few days ago we had an unprecedented tragedy in the city of La Plata, it didn't occur to me to act stupid and look the other way like some others, who are always absent and never face up to things and always say that everything is fine and beautiful. I went there and faced up to something I didn't have to, because it wasn't my responsibility."

Scioli kept quiet.

Scioli is a chess player who handles the current times dispassionately

Fernández kept turning the knife in the wound: "I am Argentinean, and when a fellow Argentinean is suffering, I will always be there, without calculations, without effacing myself, without looking the other way, defending people even though some leaders do not defend me [...] I am no longer acting stupid - don't think I'm stupid."

Scioli did not move a muscle.

Fernández kept going: "That is why I so highly value the colleagues who defend not the government but a political project. Of course it's always easier to say the right thing for each occasion; it's easier and it makes you look good in front of everyone. There's nothing easier than looking good in front of everyone and having a million friends."

By now, many faces in the crowd were turning expectantly to Scioli. The president kept right on firing her vitriol-loaded guns. "And now... do you know what the problem is? I am asking all of you, but rather than asking, I want you to use your imagination for a minute: imagine this type of leader at the helm of the type of corporation we all know about

Massa knows that the train of history rarely passes right in front of your house"

[her umpteenth reference to her nemesis, the newspaper Clarín], at the helm of the Monetary Fund; imagine those leaders negotiating debt restructuring, or debating the Media Law, or fighting for workers or pensioners. Forget about it."

And then came the final salvo: "Watch out for people who always seem untouched or unaffected by things, who act like everything is always all right."

Some analysts believe that Scioli lost the chance of a lifetime here. They think that simply by getting up and walking away without a word, he would have brought down Kirchnerism once and for all, and made himself the next president of Argentina in 2015. But Scioli took the blows, and in the following days he responded after his own fashion, granting interviews to, among other news outlets, Clarín - an act of sacrilege at the Casa Rosada - and making renewed calls for reconciliation and dialogue. So Scioli has no plans to break with Kirchnerism, at least not until after the legislative elections of October.

Until now, his enormous staying power has allowed Scioli to remain at the helm of the province while maintaining an excellent image in the opinion polls and cultivating a relationship with the dailies Clarín and La Nación, which are highly critical of the current president.

The problem for Scioli and for Fernández is that there is a third party who could sweep away all their tactics and even the entire chess board with a single blow. For several weeks now, the national media have been speculating about Sergio Massa, a former chief of staff under Cristina Fernández between 2007 and 2008.

Massa is currently the mayor of Tigre, a middle-class municipality of 308,000 residents in Buenos Aires province. The way things stand, several opinion polls predict that right now he would be the most likely candidate to win the presidential race in 2015. But that means coming out "to play." And that also means making a break with Kirchnerism and presenting his own list of running mates for the October legislatives.

Massa is one of those skillful politicians who, as Cristina Fernández says, "likes to look good in front of everyone." His tactics so far have been very similar to those of Scioli: fostering his own good image through ambiguous gestures and lots of silences. There are over a dozen Peronist mayors in the greater Buenos Aires area who are ready to support him. Yet he remains vague about his plans.

"Massa knows that the train of history very rarely passes right in front of your house," says one of his advisers on condition of anonymity. "He knows that if he wants to be president, he needs to play outside the area of Kirchnerism and run in the legislatives. His deputy list would win in Buenos Aires without the slightest doubt. And on the same night of his victory [in the parliamentary poll] he must announce his plans to run for president and start touring the country until 2015. But ultimately, only he knows what he is going to do."

Dozens of opposition mayors and deputies are waiting to see what his next move will be, in order to make their own decisions. "What all this showcases is the fragility of Argentina's political system," explains the blogger and novelist Jorge Zaín Asís. "There are many politicians out there waiting with their croissants in their hands, to see whose cup of coffee they will dip them in. In other words, they are waiting for Massa's decision to see whether they will run with him or with someone else. If this guy decides to run, he will be facing up to a government and a state at the same time. And over the course of two years, the government can use its money to convince many of the mayors who now support Massa," concludes Asís.

Kirchner acolyte in money-laundering probe

A. REBOSSIO, Buenos Aires

Argentinean judicial authorities last week searched three properties and 14 bank safety deposit boxes belonging to Lázaro Báez, a businessman who was a friend of the late President Néstor Kirchner. Both men hailed from the southern province of Santa Cruz.

Báez, his son and his accountant are under investigation for alleged money laundering. The construction and oil tycoon has also been called in for questioning after a financier said in a televised interview that Báez channeled 55 million euros to tax havens. The search and seizure came 53 days after the beginning of a series of accusations made by journalist Jorge Lanata on a television station owned by the Clarín group, which is caught up in a public confrontation with the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

The searches were ordered by a judge in Buenos Aires and carried out by the Gendarmería Nacional (border police). They began on Wednesday night, when officers opened up the 14 safety deposit boxes that Báez keeps in a branch office of Banco Santa Cruz. The next day, the police searched a warehouse owned by Austral Construcciones, Báez's building firm, where he keeps several luxury vehicles, and also two estates located 100 kilometers from the capital of Santa Cruz, Río Gallegos. Additionally, the judge requested information about Báez from authorities in Switzerland and Panama, where the entrepreneur is also believed to have undeclared sums, and from Uruguay, where Báez allegedly purchased properties.

On Lanata's popular television program, a financier named Federico Elaskar and an accountant, Leonardo Fariña, revealed that they helped Báez take money out of Argentina illegally. Both later retracted their statements in newspaper interviews. But the attorney investigating Báez is also zeroing in on them for money laundering. A government unit specializing in money-laundering crimes has detected suspicious bank transfers worth 2.8 million euros by both men.

The financier Elaskar was also an alleged victim of an extortion scheme by Báez, who tried to get Elaskar to sell him a financial company involved in the capital flight.

On the TV show, a former secretary of Kirchner's, Miriam Quiroga, said she saw bags of cash brought in by Báez and other businessmen circulating through the Casa Rosada that were allegedly filled with cash. She also said the bags' destination was a Kirchner family residence in Santa Cruz.

Some political analysts feel that the investigation into Báez has begun to affect Fernández's popularity ratings. The government confidence index measured by the Torcuato Di Tella University dropped from 1.91 points (on a maximum of five) in March to 1.42 in May. This index, which used to stand between two and 3.5 points under Néstor Kirchner, fell to 1-to-1.5 in 2009, the year of Kirchnerism's only electoral defeat after a decade in power. In 2011, when Fernández was re-elected by 54 percent of Argentineans, the index wavered between two and 2.5. New legislative elections are scheduled for August and October of this year.

Yet the government believes that the Báez case does not affect it at all. In his annual report to Congress, chief of staff Juan Manuel Abal Medina refused to answer questions on this topic, saying: "The president and Néstor Kirchner are the victims of a fierce smear campaign. I am not here to inform about media operations. Nor am I here to talk about issues that are being resolved in the courts. I will not be a tool for gossip magazines or help undermine the prestige of politics."

The government has sought to present the case as the stuff of celebrity news, because the accountant and another defendant in the money-laundering case, Fabián Rossi, are both married to well-known models, one of whom also ran for a seat under Silvio Berlusconi's party in representation of Italian immigrants in Argentina.

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