Cristina Fernández tries to tame an independent corner of government
SINCE taking office in 2007, Cristina Fernández has pushed her power well beyond the pink walls of the presidential Casa Rosada. She has raided central-bank deposits to fund spending and nationalised the country’s private pension funds. The national statistics agency has obligingly fiddled inflation statistics. Selective state advertising has brought local media to heel, while critical news organisations are in line to be broken up.
Stubbornly, the judiciary has remained a bit more independent. In December a federal court renewed an injunction that had stymied Ms Fernández’s attempts to dismantle Clarín, the country’s largest media company and her most strident critic, using a contentious media law passed in 2009. When later that week a separate ruling led to the controversial release of 13 suspected human-traffickers, the president pounced, calling for a “democratisation” of the judiciary. “I don’t have proof,” she raged, “but I have no doubt that when there is money involved, no matter what you do, [the judges] don’t care.”
On April 25th Congress approved the most controversial part of a bill to democratise the courts. The Council of Magistrates, which appoints and dismisses lower-court judges, will grow from 13 to 19 members. A dozen of them will be elected by popular vote, for which they must affiliate to a political party. The remaining slots will go to six congressmen and one government representative. The revamped Council will take decisions with a simple majority of its members, rather than requiring the assent of two-thirds as before.
Another proposed bill would restrict the use of injunctions, which Ms Fernández’s enemies have used to frustrate her. Injunctions against the state would hold for no longer than six months (currently there is no limit) and would be granted only in limited circumstances.
The reforms are likely to tighten Ms Fernández’s grip. Although her popularity has dropped by 30 percentage points in the past year, her Peronist coalition dominates both chambers of Congress and will probably take most of the Council’s elected posts. “[With] a judiciary that responds to the majority of the electorate…it is very hard for the justice system to maintain its independence,” says Alejandro Garro, an Argentine professor of comparative law at Columbia University in New York.
The opposition took to the streets of the capital on April 16th to protest in front of the courts. The same day the judicial workers’ union began a three-day strike. On April 18th more than 1m Argentines crammed the streets of Buenos Aires and other cities around the world carrying signs decrying the judicial reforms. The Episcopal Conference of Argentina warned that the reforms “ran the risk of weakening democracy”.
Ms Fernández seems undeterred. On April 18th an appeals court ruled part of her media law unconstitutional and argued that Clarín should be able to keep its television licences. Ms Fernández said she was left “speechless” and accused the judiciary of being an “aristocratic sector that operates like a ghetto”. She then called for “equal justice for everyone”—everyone, it seems, except her critics.