So, as TPTM's Woman in Argentina reported, the Argentine Senate rejected the new soybean export tax by one vote. The farmers' opposition, real and ... er ... symbolic, paid off. But the English news media is missing the real story.
The real story isn't that Congress nixed the export tax. The real story is that the President imposed it on March 11th without intending to go to Congress at all. She only went to the legislature under popular pressure and the threat of a Supreme Court case.
This presages trouble.
Article 99 of the constitution lays out the powers of the Argentine president. They are pretty extensive; more so, in fact, than the powers given the President of the United States. Here's the key paragraph:
Only when exceptional circumstances make it impossible to follow the ordinary law-making procedures laid out by this Constitution --- and when it does not deal with the procedures that govern penal issues, taxation, issues of electoral law, or issues dealing with the regulation of political powers --- may [the President] issue decrees by reason of need and urgency, with the agreement and signature of the Cabinet ministers and the Chief of the Cabinet. The Chief of the Cabinet will personally send the measure to the Bicameral Permanent Commission within ten days, whose composition will reflect the political make-up of each chamber. Within ten days, the Commission will send a report to each chamber for its consideration, which both chambers will immediately debate. A special law passed by a majority of both chambers will then regulate the procedures and scope of Congressional intervention.
The executive imposed the export tax hike on March 11th, by decree. The farmers cried foul. After all, Article 99 specifically states that the president's decree power does not apply to "the procedures that govern ... taxation." The problem is that she went to Congress under pressure from street demonstrations and blockades, not because the constitution required her to.
It is very clear that President Fernández has lost a lot of power with this vote. It's not clear what it presages. Her own Vice-President cast the deciding vote in the Senate: if that's not a sign of weakness, I don't know what is. I have a few worries.
First, it's clear that she's lost control of her party. That's going to make it hard to get anything done, and this is not a good time to put the country on auto-pilot. Spending will keep rising and there's no way to automatically bring that to halt, or automatically conjure up new tax revenues. Similarly, controlling inflation is going to require some concerted action and some tough choices, and in a country where the central bank isn't really independent a weak president is a problem.
Second, if she has lost control of her party, it might be possible for her opponents to launch a legal coup d'etat. Article 100 of the constitution creates a Cabinet form of government for Argentina: ministers have to sign off on practically everything, and the Chief of the Cabinet has formal powers more associated with a prime minister than a U.S.-style Chief of Staff. On the other hand, ministers serve at the absolute discretion of the president ... but she couldn't control her own Veep. Keep a watch on Alberto Fernández. Things could get interesting.
Third, one way for her to reclaim authority would be to use the street: e.g., mobilize the piqueteros. That would be bad. They've been romanticized by some observers, but the truth is that mob rule isn't particularly pleasant. Watch the streets.
One day, I'm sure, Argentina will become boring. We're not there yet.