Cristina Fernández de Kirchner Faces a New Challenge: Leading Argentina on Her Own
“Nestor isn’t going.” “Cristina Power.” “Thanks, Nestor.” These are some of the phrases voiced by the thousands of Argentines who passed by the Casa Rosada (“Pink House”), Argentina’s presidential residence, to pay their respects to ex-president Nestor Kirchner, who governed the country from 2003 to 2007. A sudden heart attack ended the life of the 60-year old politician, who died in the arms of his wife, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, while they were resting in their house in El Calafate, a city in Patagonia, in Argentina’s far south.
At 9:15 a.m. on Wednesday, October 27, the political history of Argentina changed forever. Observers agree that Kirchner was the main source of political support for current president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, his wife. Ever since 2007, when Nestor Kirchner transferred control of the country to his Cristina, who had broad experience as a legislator, the “K Couple” dominated the country’s political scene. Now, all eyes will be on Cristina. How will her administration function without her husband’s influence? Will she be able to deal with the challenges of governing the country until the next presidential elections in 2011?
According to Carlos Malamud, Argentine-born chief Latin American researcher at the Real Instituto Elcano in Spain, “His death opens the door to a very high level of uncertainty, especially with regard to how Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is going to deal with the government without the help of her husband, who served as a shock absorber on many issues, especially economic topics. It could be said that he was her real Minister of Economics.” Malamud believes that the position of the presidency is going to be weakened a great deal, and that the coming months are going to be very decisive in showing her true ability to manage without the backing of her husband.
In addition, his removal from the scene opens up another political issue, since Nestor Kirchner was “one of the possible candidates for president in the upcoming elections of 2011,” notes researcher Juan Santarcangelo of the National University of General Sarmiento (UNGS). “In this regard, his loss is important, since it opens up the possibilities for other players to make readjustments. Time will tell.”
When Nestor Kirchner became president on May 25, 2003, he took measures to strengthen the presidency. Following the financial crisis of 2001-2002, the country had gone into default, and five different leaders took control in just a few weeks. However, Kirchner instigated a major change in the Supreme Court of Justice, toward the selection of prestigious, independent jurists who are not linked to any political party. Kirchner also paid off Argentina’s debts to the International Monetary Fund, and he strengthened the country’s finances with systematic increases in its Central Bank reserves.
Beyond that, “Kirchnerismo,” as his governing style was called, raised the bar in the country’s human rights arena by annulling the pardons that had been granted by previous Argentine governments to Argentina’s repressive military dictatorship (1976-83), and by opening the doors of the detention centers from that era. His government also met, for the first time, with the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the association of family members of the more than 30,000 people who had disappeared during the military government.
Kirchner’s popularity increased at the same pace as the economic indicators improved. Thousands of jobs were added, the index of poverty declined, and the number of retirees increased under a revised government retirement system. During his administration, the GDP increased at an annual rate of about 8%. “This recovery was accompanied by higher levels of social inclusion, with a sustainable increase in the social indicators, at least until 2008,” notes Ignacio Labaqui, professor of political science and international relations at UCA, the Argentine Catholic University. On the other hand, notes Labaqui, “The renegotiation of the foreign debt [which had reached US$178 billion in 2001], removed what had been a Sword of Damocles hanging over [the government] since 1983.”
Nevertheless, there were some clouds hovering over his administration. Rafael Pampillón, professor of economics at the Instituto de Empresa in Madrid, notes that in 2005, when Nestor Kirchner discounted 70% of the value of the bonds it had stopped payments on, “it reduced the country’s debt by 30%, which is a clear example of juridical insecurity -- of expropriation of foreign money that was done in a unilateral way, without reaching any agreement [with foreign borrowers]. So the bonds have gone up a great deal [since his death] because people expect that there will be a change in the country’s economic policy.”
Gerardo López Alonso, professor of international analysis at Austral University, adds that the country lacks clear financial rules, which has led to a scarcity of foreign investment in the country. “The country hasn’t yet reached the level of Venezuelan [president] Hugo Chavez’s ‘Bolivarian [Revolution’], but it isn’t too far away.” He adds that there are other issues such as inflation, projected to reach an annual rate of 25% in 2010, as well as “intolerable levels of insecurity,” such as the country’s high crime rates.
Kirchner had been a heavy smoker who ignored medical care. In fact, during his presidency, he had two crises with his gastric system, and suffered two coronary episodes this year prior to his final heart attack. Labaqui believes that his outward toughness at times translated into a leadership style was too confrontational. Although his assertiveness helped strengthen his political power between 2003 and 2005, the period when he consolidated his presidency, Kirchner’s “absence of any genuine calling for engaging in [civic] dialogue promoted a growing division. I have serious doubts about whether he favored greater and better levels of democracy.”
The conflict about a tax on exports, the most powerful sector of the economy after the Argentine peso was devalued in 2002, was the clearest example of his antagonism and negativity in his arguments with adversaries. “He clashed with the countryside in a nation that lives in its countryside,” notes Labaqui. He also had standoffs with the Supreme Court of Justice that he himself had chosen. Its judges had argued in favor of the extradition of a Chilean former guerrilla fighter, something that the two Kirchners did not want. In addition, he fought against the powerful Clarín, which owns TV channels and newspapers that have a clearly oppositional tone.
None of these confrontations prevented thousands of people from traveling from all over Argentina to Buenos Aires to pay their last respects to Kirchner, who belonged to the populist party founded by ex-president Juan Domingo Perón (who served from 1946-1955 and 1973-1974). The movement is known as Peronismo (Peronism) or Justicialismo (Justicialism). Many analysts argue that this popular sentiment has led to unconditional support for Cristina, which will help her deal with the short-term future. According to Santarcangelo, “Given the number of people who came to pay their last respects to Nestor Kirchner and to offer their support to Cristina, I believe she could even wind up stronger, with more support. However, this remains to be seen.”
Malamud recalls the death of President Juan Perón, who passed away during his third administration, and was succeeded by his wife Isabel Martínez de Perón, an unskilled vice president whom many regarded as having weak character. “We could wind up with an authentic ‘Iron Lady,’ in the sense of Margaret Thatcher. In such a case, she could rise from the ashes of her husband as a woman with a true capacity for leadership. Or, on the contrary, we could find ourselves with another Isabel Perón.”
“Isabelita” Perón, as she was called, was dominated by her social welfare minister, José López Rega, who permitted the arrival of the military and the coup d’etat of March 24, 1976.
Nevertheless, Labaqui believes that Cristina’s experience will work to her benefit. “[Cristina] was a militant during her years as a college student. She had her own power base during the administration of her husband, and she had one before then, during her periods as a deputy and senator in the 1990s.” He adds, “According to surveys, the [current] president has a higher level of popularity than her husband [did]. That said, her ability to maintain her leadership will depend in good measure on how she deals with the death of her companion [Nestor], and how she administers the problem of leadership in the ‘Kirchnerist’ [version of] Peronism.”
Barely five days after the death of her husband, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner returned to her job as the country’s chief executive, consoled by the support of her two children, but visibly saddened.
She will face quite a few challenges in the little more than a year between now and the elections. Experts note the political disputes that lie ahead. According to Malamud, “The problem now is figuring out whether or not she will restructure her government. Who will be her points of support? Is she going to keep her intimate circle of advisors, or will she change them? What is going to be her relationship with the opposition? Will the confrontations increase, or will she try to reach agreements?” Along general lines, he adds, “I believe that she is going to try to maintain the same direction. This will accelerate the pace for both the government and within the party itself, where there are two line-ups confronting each other.
On the one hand, there are the Peronists who are not Kirchnerists, such as the ex president Eduardo Duhalde, Francisco de Narváez [a member of the Argentine Chamber of Deputies], and Alberto Fernández [ex Chief of Cabinet with Néstor Kirchner]. On the other hand, there are the Kirchnerists. And finally, there is the opposition. The electoral horizon has gotten a lot closer, and this is going to require some important definitions in coming months.”
Cristina avoided greeting or receiving people from the opposition during the wake. Duhalde, de Narváez and Julio Cobos, the country’s vice-president, are the main “enemies” of the president. “The image of Cobos, tied to all of the non-Peronist parties, is one of a good candidate who tries to make pending economic reforms,” says Pampillón. He adds, “He opposed the Kirchner couple’s administration by coming out against increases in export taxes, and he also opposed giving money to Argentina’s Central Bank to pay off its sovereign debt” at the beginning of this year.
For López Alonso, it is also important to mention Mauricio Macri, who heads the city government of Buenos Aires. He is another person who “doesn’t awaken any passions among the public, even if he could manage to form an alliance with sectors of post-Kirchner Peronism. Strictly speaking, the broad field of alliances is now fertile ground for various hypotheses that are inscrutable for the time being.”
Observers say that in terms of the upcoming election, another person who should not be forgotten is Daniel Scioli, governor of the province of Buenos Aires, who has remained a faithful supporter of the Kirchners until now. Cristina, herself, has some prospects of going on to lead a second administration. According to Labaqui, the major area of doubt now involves whether Cristina Kirchner will take the post left to her by her husband and go on to pursue another term as president, or whether she will decide not to run for re-election. “In case she decides not to run [for the presidency], she will need to postpone that decision for as long as possible, for reasons of political strategy. If she doesn’t do that, she would automatically become a ‘lame duck,’ as they say in the United States.”
Meanwhile, experts say that many unresolved issues must be resolved. According to Pampillón, “The markets are waiting to see if there is someone who can bring legal security…. [The markets are also waiting until] the taxes on agriculture that are restraining the country’s growth are reduced; the bad economic policies are changed, such as price controls and failure to comply with contracts signed with foreign companies; and, above all, [they are waiting for] an especially loose monetary policy. People hope that a new government resolves these economic problems.”
“How long will Cristina enjoy this positive illusion of a boom?” López Alonso asks. “This is the key question for her political strategy looking forward to 2011. These days, no one can answer that question with any certainty, although people believe that it will be very hard for Cristina to secure a second presidential term. Even today, we still believe that Kirchner lives, after reading the familiar words found on so many walls of Buenos Aires: “Peron lives,” and “Evita lives.”