Argentine president draws opposition ire for sending militant supporters into schools

Mon, Sep 17, 2012, 01:00

The Kirchner regime is accused of organising illegal political activities

WHEN A group of Peronist militants closely linked to President Cristina Kirchner started carrying out political work in Argentina’s schools, her critics did more than cry foul.

The opposition-controlled city government in the capital Buenos Aires set up a free-phone service so parents and schoolchildren could advise city authorities of any unauthorised political activity in its schools.

In the first 24 hours the line received more than 1,000 calls, becoming a new front in the increasingly acrimonious struggle between the government and its opponents, which last week brought hundreds of thousands of protesters on to the streets of the country’s biggest cities.

The city government took action after local media revealed that the group, known as La Cámpora, was bringing its pro-government activities into schools. One video showed its militants turning the delivery of schoolbooks from the ministry of education into a rally on school grounds in which the virtues of the Kirchner administration were extolled.

It has also been accused of using a board game in which Kirchner’s deceased husband and predecessor, Nestór Kirchner, is the model for a superhero who teaches children about the country’s recent past.

Despite the outcry that followed the revelations, leading Kirchner supporters have backed La Cámpora’s work in schools. Hebe de Bonafini, leader of a radical faction of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and one of the president’s most ardent supporters, said she believed “from kindergarten, children should get involved in politics”, while a pro-Kirchner legislator in the city denounced the opposition’s phone line as facho – kirchnerista slang for fascism.

Esteban Bullrich, head of the city’s education department, countered that “This [the Cámpora activities] is fascism.” He said he was determined to prevent any political group into schools.

Kirchner sought to ridicule the phone line initiative. “Why don’t they set up an 0800 number to denounce those who sell drugs at school gates?” she said during a recent speech, claiming La Cámpora was merely carrying out “citizen formation workshops”.

The group has shot to prominence following its creation in 2008. Kirchner has given its leaders control over large swathes of the country’s economy, allowing them to implement increasingly statist and protectionist policies.

Its militants have also become a key force within the president’s fractious Peronist movement. With her son, Máximo, as one of La Cámpora’s main leaders, the group is loyal at a time when Kirchner has fallen out with Peronist union leaders and Peronist governors in key provinces.

“La Cámpora has become an instrument of power under President Kirchner, an instrument to pressure incumbent Peronist governors and mayors, an instrument of pressure against potential enemies inside the party,” says Samuel Amaral, a historian of the movement.

La Cámpora’s activities in schools have taken on added significance because they come as the government is discussing lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 years. This is part of a wider political reform that many of Kirchner’s supporters want to include a constitutional change allowing her to stand for a third term in 2015.

A recent opinion poll showed 66 per cent of voters opposed allowing her run for a third term, but support for the proposal is rising, and is strongest among younger voters.

Ahead of a debate in the congress, pro-Kirchner senator Aníbal Fernández argued “the young mature more quickly today than 80 years ago” when the current voting age was fixed.

To have any chance of passing a constitutional reform to allow her try to win a third term, Kirchner needs the approval of two-thirds of congress.

That will prove difficult, even with a lower voting age, especially as several Peronist governors are planning their own presidential bids in 2015, and are likely to exert their influence on their provincial delegations in congress to block any reform.

That has led to speculation that the push for a third term might be a diversionary tactic.

“It is possible the government knows such a reform will be very difficult but it prefers to promote this discussion than give the impression of a weak administration, and becoming the infamous lame duck,” said Nicolas Solari, a political analyst with the Poliarquia consultancy in Buenos Aires.

But with no heir apparent from within Kirchner’s faction of Peronism, her supporters have an obvious motive to push for a third term. “It is logical to assume that many of the corruption investigations currently being blocked will progress once kirchnerismo is out of power,” said Solari. “And this would put at risk important elements of kirchnerismo.”