Argentina’s Elected Autocracy

Back in September, Argentines held massive nationwide rallies to protest the autocratic abuses, economic failures, and rampant corruption of President Cristina Kirchner. Two months later, they held even bigger demonstrations. And on April 18, they held their largest protests yet, with roughly two million people marching in cities and towns across the country, including more than one million in Buenos Aires alone.

“I took to the street because we live in a democracy that runs the risk of transforming into authoritarianism,” one Argentine university student told Reuters. “This government doesn’t want to listen. Every day, we become more like hostages, and somehow we have to make this known.”

The immediate trigger for the April 18 protests was a Kirchner proposal to abolish judicial independence, but the demonstrators also expressed concerns about everything from sky-high inflation to violent crime to government attacks on press freedom. In the weeks following their protests, they received good news and bad news. The good news was that Argentina’s court system pushed back against Kirchner’s war on free expression. The bad news was that government-allied lawmakers enacted her judicial “reforms,” which means that the ruling party will now have majority control over the legal council that appoints and (if necessary) removes federal judges. It’s not hard to see what this will mean in practice: Argentina’s executive branch will be able to stack the federal courts with friendly magistrates, and it will also be able to impeach any judge who doesn’t toe the party line.

Not surprisingly, many outside groups and institutions have condemned Kirchner’s judicial overhaul as an assault on democracy. Both José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch and United Nations special rapporteur Gabriela Knaul have said that it “seriously compromises” the independence of Argentina’s judiciary, and Transparency International has warned that it could “threaten the country’s rule of law by concentrating too much power in the executive branch.” Argentina’s National Chamber of Civil Appeals has said that it “violates the principle of judicial independence,” and the Argentine Business Association has called it “a serious threat to constitutional guarantees.” In Buenos Aires, Mayor Mauricio Macri and members of the city legislature have taken actions to affirm their support for freedom of expression.

Kirchner’s judicial power grab comes at a moment when many Argentine jurists are resisting her efforts to create a Venezuelan-style autocracy. For example, just a few weeks before Argentina’s Senate passed the judicial reforms, an appeals court ruled that portions of her 2009 “anti-monopoly” media law are unconstitutional. This is the law that Kirchner has used to demand the breakup of Grupo Clarín, Argentina’s largest media conglomerate, which publishes the country’s leading newspaper, Clarín. The Clarín empire represents Kirchner’s biggest journalistic opponent -- that’s why she has fought so hard to dismantle it. After the recent appellate ruling, the case will go to Argentina’s Supreme Court.