Has the government gone dead cat?

After the spectacular collapse of Milei’s reform package, his deputies presented a bill to overturn legal abortion — but was it a smokescreen or just incompetence?

Italy, Rome, Vatican, 2024/2/11.Pope Francis celebrates a Holy Mass for Canonization of Maria Antonia of Saint Joseph de Paz y Figueroa in Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. On the anniversary of the first apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Lourdes, Pope Francis canonized Maria Antonia of Saint Joseph de Paz y Figueroa, also known as Mama Antula, the founder of the House for Spiritual Exercises of Buenos Aires Photograph by Alessia Giuliani / Catholic Press Photo s. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. (Photo by ALESSIA GIULIANI / ipa-agency.ne/IPA/Sipa USA)No Use Germany.

Buenos Aires Herald editorial

In British politics, a strategy known as the dead cat has entered the limelight in recent years.

As Boris Johnson wrote in 2013, when you have lost an argument beyond all hope, the dead cat is a way of distracting your adversaries. If you slam a dead cat onto the table, you may not win — but you can be pretty sure people will be talking about something else because now there’s now a dead cat on the table. 

The Milei government apparently tried some deadcatting of its own this week when its deputies presented a bill that would ban abortion even in cases of rape, just two days after the omnibus bill suffered a calamitous self-inflicted defeat in the Lower House.

To recap: after the Lower House approved the legislation as a whole last week, deputies began debating the individual articles of the bill on Tuesday. But that same evening, things fell apart when it became clear that the government had not garnered enough support. 

In an apparent rookie mistake, La Libertad Avanza (LLA) bloc head Oscar Zago motioned to send the bill back to commissions without realizing that such a move would undo all previous progress. The omnibus bill was suddenly void, per Lower House regulations and the governing coalition’s request. At first Zago and Interior Minister Guillermo Francos insisted in interviews that the bill still held general approval, only to reverse course and acknowledge that everything was back to square one. 

It is still unclear how much of what happened was due to inexperience, intransigence, or both, but the colossal blunder inevitably became the talking point on radio, television, and social media. What followed was an attempt by the government to harness a tornado of its own making by going on the offensive. 

While Milei was in Israel liking posts on X equating the debacle to a “declaration of war” or a game of 3D chess to expose the “caste,” government officials such as Economy Minister Luis Caputo downplayed what happened, claiming that it didn’t really affect their plans. The argument is that any objection is irrelevant because Milei got 56% of the vote, without recognizing that that percentage is not a starting point but a fragile ceiling.

Provincial governors and opposition deputies were immediately targeted with a flurry of insults for not adhering to the government’s demands. Milei called them “traitors” and the slashing of transport subsidies for provinces was announced on Thursday, which will force governors to raise bus fares across the country amid a brutal economic crisis. 

It was in this climate that six LLA deputies presented a bill that would criminalize elective abortion in Argentina, overturning the landmark 2020 Congress decision to legalize the procedure. The move was enough to generate a huge backlash that dominated public opinion, largely overshadowing the omnibus bill fiasco despite how unlikely its success is. Memories from the hard battle to gain that fundamental right, and the human cost it took, are still painfully fresh. 

However, with this government, there is division even in deadcatting. Deputy Lilia Lemoine publicly denied signing the bill on Wednesday, despite her name being featured on it, while Milei and Presidential Spokesperson Manuel Adorni claimed it wasn’t a government initiative at all. It turned out that the deputy who submitted the bill, Rocío Bonacci, didn’t realize she needed to ask for permission beforehand. Bonacci has since acknowledged on X that it was her own initiative.

As with the omnibus bill failure, what’s really behind the anti-abortion bill that fell flat despite raising alarms is an open question. It could be a case of incompetence or yet another symptom of LLA’s reliance on alternative narratives propagated heavily via social media. Either way, it seems like the bizarre dead cat metaphor could be useful in the coming years.


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