When argentinas then president cristina fernndez de kirchner tried to reform the countrys judiciary in 2013, her former cabinet chief alberto fernndez lambasted the move as a blatant attempt to strengthen political control over the courts.

Tell me who benefits from the crime and ill tell you who the murderer is, mr fernndez said during a withering takedown of the ultimately unsuccessful proposal. the main beneficiary, he argued, would be the president herself, since she faced a series of corruption charges.

Now mr fernndez is president and is renewing attempts to reform argentinas dysfunctional and politicised justice system. but although it is widely accepted that change is urgently needed, he is facing similar criticisms.

The move comes as mr fernndez faces growing criticisms of his handling of the economy and the pandemic, as more and more companies choose to exit the country amid mounting uncertainty.

The government says the reforms are intended to make the justice system more efficient and transparent. but opponents claim the former lawyer is trying to protect ms fernndez de kirchner, the countrys powerful vice-president. many say she is the real power behind the government after she picked mr fernndez to run in her place in presidential elections last year.

The first stage of the proposed reforms has already been approved by the senate, although the bill faces a rough and uncertain passage through the lower house of congress, where the government does not command a majority.

Opposition members say the legislation is aimed at diluting the power of judges charged with investigating corruption cases involving members of the ruling coalition.

According to synopsis, a local pollster, 60 per cent of argentines think judicial reform is aimed at controlling the justice system for the governments own purposes, while less than 5 per cent of the population see it as an urgent reform.

But marcela losardo, justice minister, rejected the claims as misguided.

A phantom has been created, she told the financial times. there is not a single article of the reform that guarantees impunity for anyone.

All judges would keep their cases, she said, adding: this is not a project [designed to benefit] the government...and if they say the reform doesnt work, well lets debate it, lets modify it.

According to the government, the reforms aim to establish a more modern criminal justice system in which prosecutors rather than judges investigate cases and merge some obsolete jurisdictions into others. it will also increase the number of federal criminal courts to address notoriously lengthy delays and the concentration of power in the hands of a few judges.

In addition, an expert advisory panel which critics say is dominated by government supporters, including ms fernndez de kirchners lawyer has been appointed to study issues such as expanding the supreme court. mr fernndez has opposed such a move in the past, and opponents of the reforms argue it could benefit the ex-president if loyalists were appointed.

Another issue is the drive led by ms fernndez de kirchner to remove three judges presiding over cases involving her, even though the supreme court ruled in 2018 that their appointments were legitimate. this week, it agreed to review the issue again.

The sole objective [of judicial reform] is the impunity of cristina fernndez de kirchner, her children and [former] government officials. it could hardly be clearer, said daniel sabsay, a leading constitutional lawyer.

If the government was serious about strengthening the rule of law it would move to depoliticise the system of appointing judges, a measure not included in the bill, he said, adding: of course the reform is not aimed at making [the judiciary] independent.

Regardless of the merits of the proposals, many are concerned that the debate has become divisive in argentinas already deeply polarised political climate. that threatens to derail much-needed change.

Andrs malamud, an argentine political scientist at the university of lisbon, said it was improbable but not impossible that the law would be passed by congress, since its approval depended on a handful of centrist legislators who are sensitive to the economic situation and public opinion neither of which favoured the government.

But the lack of national consensus over the governments proposals means that even if congress approves them, you can expect pushback in the short term and reversal in the medium term.

Judicial reform is an initiative that doesnt have anything to do with the priorities of public opinion while representing a political cost and a waste of energy for the government, said ignacio labaqui, an analyst at medley global advisors.

He expected the bill to remain stuck in the lower house for some time unless it gained more support. no government is so suicidal as to push a key law to a vote that it [knows it] will lose.

Should the government push ahead with the reforms and fail, or further erode public support, the ruling coalitions competitiveness in midterm elections next year could be compromised.

Much will depend on the state of the economy. if that goes well, then many will say they [did this] but at least they improved the economy. but if the economy goes badly, then this [reform] will probably make people even more angry, said lucas romero at synopsis.