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.
But Kirchner isn’t wasting any time. Earlier this month, her supporters in Congress introduced a bill that would allow the government to seize a majority stake in Argentina’s only newsprint manufacturer. Such a move would obviously hurt anti-Kirchner newspapers such as Clarín and La Nación, especially given Argentina’s strict currency controls and import restrictions. Those papers are already struggling to deal with Kirchner’s undeclared advertising war: As the Wall Street Journal reported in February, Argentina’s supermarket companies and electronic retailers have been ordered by the government “to stop advertising in the country’s top newspapers.” The new judicial reforms will make it even harder for journalists to appeal unconstitutional assaults on their freedom, because injunctions against government policy will be capped at six months.
Meanwhile, Kirchner has also tried to manipulate Argentina’s financial regulations. “In November,” notes the Economist, “the government changed the capital-markets law to give the state-controlled regulator, the National Securities Commission, the power to intervene in companies listed on the stock market if the interests of minority shareholders are neglected. Ricardo Kirschbaum, the editor of Clarín, says he fears that this law will soon be used to seize control of the company.”
For now, Argentine judges are doing their best to uphold democracy and the rule of law. A few weeks ago, federal courts overturned the outrageous fines that had been slapped on private consultants who reported honest Argentine inflation numbers. Kirchner has consistently lied about the country’s real inflation rate — which is approximately 25 percent — and on February 1 the International Monetary Fund formally censured her government for publishing bogus statistics. The online business journal Latinvex has projected that “Argentina is likely to have the world’s highest inflation rate this year.” (Yes, Argentina’s inflation problem is even worse than Venezuela’s.)
Unfortunately, Kirchner’s judicial reforms have moved Argentina significantly closer to authoritarianism. Indeed, even before the Argentine Congress voted to end judicial independence, media freedom was steadily declining. “The press environment as a whole worsened in 2012,” observes Freedom House, “as the administration carried out smear campaigns against critical journalists, usually through public media.”
Opposition forces are now hoping that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of Clarín and strike down the bulk of Kirchner’s controversial 2009 media law. They are also hoping to pick up seats in Argentina’s October 2013 mid-term legislative elections. According to one pollster, Kirchner’s approval rating dropped from 64 percent at the time of her reelection in October 2011 to 34 percent in March 2013. Yet Kirchner is still benefiting from a weak and divided opposition, as she has throughout her tenure.
The mid-term elections may determine whether pro-government lawmakers can amend the constitution to let her seek a third term in 2015. They may also determine whether — or how soon — Argentina’s democracy can be saved.