Argentine opposition binds together against Kirchner for first time to reject shrinking of Council of Magistrates.
But Kirchner swiftly warned them that his government would finally turn the Council into an "independent body," just as he claims he did with the Supreme Court of Justice by purging it of its so-called "Menemist majority."
National opposition forces in the Lower House signed a joint statement saying that the bill sponsored by First Lady and Senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner ? passed in the Senate on Thursday ? is aimed at "manipulating" the agency that handles the appointment and removal of judges. It also accused the government of seeking to strip Congress of its powers.
Deputy Elisa Carrió, who leads the centre-left ARI party, told reporters that the opposition must join forces "because without justice there is no republican life." Centre-right Rebirth party head Ricardo Lopez Murphy called all forces to close ranks "to preserve democratic life" and to prevent "the consolidation of a hegemonic regime." Ex-justice minister Ricardo Gil Lavedra, who is close to the centrist Radical party, said that the independence of the Council must be ensured "because when that balance is broken, autonomy is lost."
But Kirchner, in a speech spiced with histrionic gestures, was quick to rebuke them from Government House. "I am very happy that they get together so people can see them... There is Carrió, there is (centre-right deputy Mauricio) Macri, the Radical party... the only ones who were absent were (former Radical president Fernando) de la Rua, and of, course, 'you-know-who' (ex- president Carlos Menem)."
A widespread joke goes that Menem has a jinx and cannot be named by name. People even resort to saying "Mendez" instead, or touching wood ? as Kirchner did recently in Congress ? when seeing him.
Kirchner holds both fellow Peronist Menem (1989-99) and De la Rua to be the main culprits in Argentina's worst-ever economic crisis that exploded in late 1999 with the resignation of De la Rua amid deadly riots.
The Victory Front on Monday was forced to suspend a planned special session of the Lower House scheduled for yesterday as it was short of support. Kirchner had a landslide triumph in October's midterm elections and his Victory Front now controls the Senate, but it only managed to become the first minority in the Lower House. Victory Front Lower House caucus head Agustin Rossi, a deputy for Santa Fe, said the decision to postpone the planned extraordinary session had been made because "the issue was not urgent" and hence the Victory Front sought to avoid a plenary session that would entail "an additional effort."
To debate in the Lower House an issue that has not been previously discussed at committee level requires a two-thirds quorum and, to pass the bill, a simple majority of 129 deputies, he said.
The Victory Front has 115 out of the Lower House's 257 seats. A dissident Federal Peronism caucus formed by followers of ex-presidents Eduardo Duhalde and Menem, which has refused to back government-sponsored bills, commands about 30 seats. The Victory Front is scheduled to discuss today the formation of two committees ? Constitutional Affairs and Justice ? in an effort to have a resolution of the issue and have it discussed in February in an extraordinary session.
Rossi told radio Spika that the bill had "already been debated in the Senate" but that the Victory Front was nonetheless open to further discussion.
The bill seeks to reduce the number of members of the Council of Magistrates to 13 from 20. The opposition contends that this would give the government control over the agency which, however, virtually everybody agrees is plagued by bureaucracy. Critics of the bill say that a downsized Council could allow the government to manipulate the appointment of judges and veto probes against judges. Even some government allies oppose the bill.
Senator Fernandez de Kirchner dismissed such criticism, saying that the Victory Front would have only five of the 13 seats in the revamped Council and that the bill was aimed at streamlining its functioning.
Cabinet Chief Alberto Fernandez has said that behind the opposition's rejection of restructuring the agency was the "wish to keep alive one of the most corporate-like institutions that ever existed in Argentina."
The Council of Magistrates was created in 1998 following a Constitutional reform in 1994.(BAH)