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Argentina’s judicial reform could spark a political crisis

. Aug 17, 2020
Argentina judicial reform could spark a political crisis "No more impunity," reads sign carried during protest in Buenos Aires. Photo: Mariano Gaspar/Shutterstock

After recently agreeing on a deal with private creditors for the repayment of Argentina’s USD 65 billion debt, President Alberto Fernández was able to take a quick breather and think about the future. In the foreseeable short term, however, there are a number of gigantic issues to be solved, namely Argentina’s USD 44 billion debt to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Covid-19 pandemic, and a sweeping judicial reform in the country. The latter is the only one that depends solely on Argentina, yet it is also the most divisive.

</p> <p>The proposal to overhaul Argentina&#8217;s judiciary was submitted on July 30 and intends to increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court and establish a new and more technological law system, seeking “guarantee a more independent judicial effort” and speed up cases, as President Fernández said, upon presenting the bill.&nbsp;</p> <p>As a respected former professor in criminal law at the University of Buenos Aires, the 61-year-old Mr. Fernández could be the ideal person to lead such sweeping judicial change in Argentina, especially in a country where “in 99 percent of crimes committed, less than 1 percent has an effective sanction by the state, including homicides, drug trafficking, and corruption,” according to Germán Garavano, a former Justice Minister and now a reform consultant.&nbsp;</p> <p>But while the proposed overhaul could ensure greater transparency and increased efficiency in the Argentinian justice system, the reform could also spark a political crisis. In the wake of President Fernández&#8217;s presentation of the bill, <em>cacerolazo </em>protests could be heard in wealthy neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, with citizens banging pots and pans in opposition to the reform proposal, accusing the current administration to be using the opportunity to shield Peronist colleagues from corruption charges. And the pot-banging hecklers centered their rage on Vice President Cristina Kirchner.&nbsp;</p> <p>As something of an embodiment of the political division in Argentina, Mrs. Kirchner — who served as president from 2007 to 2015 — is currently answering 12 criminal cases, with six requests for her to be taken into preventive custody. She is accused of crimes as varied as leading a sprawling corruption scheme, covering up a terrorist attack, and stealing a historical document. Regardless of her potential guilt or innocence in these cases, Mrs. Kirchner is currently protected by parliamentary immunity. Her opponents demand that change as a result of the judicial reform.</p> <h2>Reform comes with bad timing</h2> <p>The legal imbroglio involving Cristina Kirchner is also surrounded by narrative. The ex-president claims she is the victim of lawfare, in a coordinated action by the Argentinian justice system and backed by the U.S. It should be said that such allegations are common among the Latin American left and center-left, being repeated continuously by Brazil&#8217;s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was arrested in 2018 and <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/11/08/lula-free-what-happens-now-brazil/">released in 2019</a>.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mrs. Kirchner spent the last few years accusing federal judge Claudio Bonadio of leading a judicial witch hunt against her. Mr. Bonadio was in charge of several high-profile cases involving the ex-president, including the so-called &#8216;notebook scandal,&#8217; which involved an alleged bribery ring led by Mrs. Kirchner, denounced by notebooks kept by her former driver Óscar Centeno.&nbsp;</p> <p>Aged 63, Claudio Bonadio died in February of this year, with the cause of death rumored to be a brain tumor. As many allies of former President Kirchner silently celebrated the end of what they defined as persecution, members of the opposition saw Mr. Bonadio’s death as the end of any hope they had of seeing the ex-president stand trial. Now, government opponents claim the judicial reform is another Peronist mechanism to help Mrs. Kirchner avoid prosecution.&nbsp;</p> <p>According to Daniel Sabsay, a constitutional lawyer and professor at the University of Buenos Aires, the government&#8217;s proposed reform is far from having unanimous support and could open some worrying precedents for violating entrenched constitutional principles, as well as creating an entirely avoidable political crisis at such a turbulent moment.&nbsp;</p> <p>“There is little political space to carry out a reform that was already poorly created. We have seen that, in addition to the opposition, the reform proposal has been criticized by members of the Peronist wing themselves,” the expert told <strong>The Brazilian Report.</strong>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ms. Sabsay explained that even if the government manages to pass the bill through Congress — where it holds a majority — the controversial reform is unlikely to make it into law and &#8220;not end up being declared unconstitutional.”&nbsp;</p> <p>After solving the pressing problem of Argentina&#8217;s private foreign debt, President Fernández has some credit in the bank. However, he risks throwing this away by pursuing judicial reform at such a delicate moment in Argentina&#8217;s history, battling the Covid-19 pandemic and with a country politically split down the middle.&nbsp;</p> <p>Today, August 17, opposition forces are set to hold a public protest against the government and the judicial reform plan. However, the demonstration has received criticism from all over the political spectrum, due to the risk it poses amid the coronavirus pandemic. One prominent trade union leader, Hugo Yasky, exclaimed that &#8220;if Argentina were governed by the people that are calling this march, we&#8217;d have the same number of [Covid-19] deaths as Brazil.&#8221;

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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