Argentina’s new president: Kirchner after Kirchner

Celia Szusterman
29 October 2007

It was widely expected that Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner would become the first woman to be elected president of Argentina in the election of 28 October 2007. What was less anticipated was that she would achieve this in the first round by far exceeding the required 10% margin of victory over her nearest rival. In the event, her 45% share put Kirchner - wife and political ally of the current president, Néstor Kirchner - more than twenty points ahead of the second-placed candidate in a field of fourteen, and another woman: Elisa Carrió, the ex-Radical Party figure now representing a recently formed electoral alliance, the Coalición Civica.

Celia Szusterman is senior lecturer in Spanish and Latin American studies at the University of Westminster and an associate fellow at Chatham House

Also by Celia Szusterman in openDemocracy:

"Argentina: the state we're in" (26 October 2005)

"Latin America's eroding democracy: the view from Argentina" (1 June 2006 )

"Argentina's mirror: the causa Malvinas" (4 April 2007)

"The Kirchner model: king and queen penguin" (17 July 2007)

A decisive victory, then. What does it tell us about the new president, and about Argentina in 2007?

The question may be approached by noting how the reality differs from the inevitable myths that assemble themselves around any combination of words that includes "Argentina", "woman" and "politics". Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has been misguidedly compared to Eva Perón, though "Evita" was no politician but rather an instinctive populist who knew what poverty was all about and was adored by those she called her descamisados (shirtless ones). True, had it not been for the macho culture of the Argentine military she could have accompanied her husband on the presidential ticket in 1951; instead, it was the woman Juan Perón married after Eva's death - Isabel Martínez - who was chosen by her then ailing husband as his vice-presidential candidate in 1974, following his triumphal homecoming from exile. He duly died and she succeeded him, to head arguably the most incompetent administration in a country which has known many such.

Señora Kirchner has also been compared, only slightly less misleadingly, to Senator Hillary Clinton. True, Cristina was anointed presidential candidate by her husband and the incumbent president, Néstor Kirchner. But while Hillary Clinton has spent the best part of the last two years traversing the United States to explain her views and her future policies on every domestic as well as international issue (and still has not been nominated), Cristina Kirchner did not even take the trouble to campaign after her husband announced (in April 2007) that he would not be standing for a second term, and that he wished Cristina to succeed him. Until three weeks before election-day, she spent much of her time travelling abroad; her ostensible purpose was to "place Argentina in the world", but an agenda-less itinerary that took her to Spain, Austria, Germany, Mexico and New York revealed nothing of her intended foreign policy and enabled her to avoid scrutiny and difficult questions at home.

A caveat is necessary here: none of the other thirteen candidates running against Señora Kirchner went through a selection process or internal party election. This is where the real problem with Argentine politics today lies: the crisis of political representation that erupted at the end of 2001 and which wiped out the established political parties has not been solved. For the past half century, two parties - the Partido Justicialista (Justicialists, known as Peronists) and the Unión Civica Radical (Radical Civic Union, known as Radicals) - would get over 86% of the votes between them. Today, the Radicals remain a party in name, but lack all political power; Peronists have all the power, but no party. Indeed, alhough there were three "Peronist" candidates in this election, no candidate ran on the Justicialist ticket.

The geography of victory

Although the result means that there is no need for a second round, and the twenty-point-plus difference with Carrió is impressive, a closer look at the results at electoral-district level presents a far from triumphalist picture. There are twenty-four such districts, corresponding to Argentina's twenty-three provinces plus the capital city, Buenos Aires. Señora Kirchner lost in all the major urban conglomerates where the urban, educated middle classes as well as huge numbers of urban poor and unemployed people live: Buenos Aires (the most populous district in the country, containing 37% of the electorate), Rosario, Santa Fe, Bahia Blanca, Córdoba. This outcome reinforces the results of opinion polls revealing that voting intentions towards Cristina were indirectly proportional to educational attainment. This must have shocked a woman who likes to think of herself as an intellectual (even, as she recently characterised herself to a congress of bemused philosophers, as a "Hegelian").

The urban areas are precisely where her husband's image has fallen markedly in the past six months, as a result of a succession of problems: unsolved corruption scandals; growing insecurity in a country that used to be considered one of the safest in Latin America; a reluctance to enforce the law, translating into tolerance of blockades of roads and international bridges by piqueteros; authoritarianism, including a tendency to dismiss the press as part of a plot to "destabilise" his government; and a refusal to recognise that inflation is a problem, even to the extent of sacking the heads of the National Institute of Statistics to ensure a more "acceptable" inflation figure (9%, as opposed to the 15-20% estimated by independent analysts).

Señora Kirchner will not be happy either that she owes her victory to the current vice-president, Daniel Scioli, who was elected governor of Buenos Aires. Scioli received more votes for the governorship than Cristina did for the presidency. Scioli has been an almost invisible vice-president, shunned by the Kirchners - even at one point denounced by Cristina (during a meeting in the senate chamber which he, as vice-president, was chairing) as having orchestrated a press campaign against her. Yet when Kirchner was looking around for an unbeatable candidate for the crucial province of Buenos Aires, the instantly recognisable former speedboat-racing champion (who lost his right arm in a sporting accident, and is married to a former model and celebrity in her own right), was the only available choice. The manner of the quiet, soft-smiling Scioli, who was persuaded in 1997 by then-president Carlos Menem to become a congressman, came to form a welcome contrast to the bombastic rudeness and bullying of Néstor Kirchner.

If Cristina lost the cities, she won in the traditional bastions of Peronism: remote provinces, often with under half a million inhabitants each, where Peronist governors of various hues unashamedly use state resources to instal clientelistic networks that have long proven entrenched and unbreakable.

The couple in power

So what can be expected from a "cristinista" government? There will be clearly a change in style: Senora Kirchner likes to travel, her husband loathed travelling; she enjoys the occasional company of other human beings, something her husband does not. She even gave a subdued victory speech on election-night addressed to "all Argentineans", something her husband notoriously failed to do. Yet likeness as well as opposition can attract: and in this case Néstor's authoritarianism, arrogance and intolerance of different opinions are as much Cristina's personality traits as his.

If this implies a bumpy ride, there is an institutional factor working in Señora Kirchner's favour: the two-thirds majority of the couple's Frente para la Victoria in both chambers of congress means the president can effectively govern without the need for any opposition legislator being present. More worryingly, many judicial posts await filling, and the government will now be able to appoint them all. Cristina's treatment of members of the legislature like "the domestic servants in her kitchen" (as a disgruntled fellow senator described it) is closer to becoming routine.

The economic outlook is cloudy. Argentina has emerged from its deepest crisis in eighty years in 2001-02, thanks to a combination of a favourable international context (low dollar, low interest rates, high prices for commodities) and policies that have stimulated demand. Now the investment that took place in the 1990s has reached capacity and has not been reproduced or modernised. Inflation is a real threat, not just in overheating the economy, but because each point in inflation means that a half million people fall below the poverty line. Will Cristina encourage the business-friendly climate needed to attract foreign investment; will she settle the outstanding debt with the Paris Club in order to make that investment possible? There are indications that she wants to proceed in this direction. But she agrees with her husband that inflation is not a problem, and has said she wants to put in place a "social pact" (prices and incomes policy) of the kind that has failed in the past.

Señora Kirchner refused to take part in any debate during the campaign, relying instead on the government's overt support, including the use of the presidential plane and state funds. This is all against the law, and several violations may yet reach the courts. She shares her husband's hatred of the press, which far exceeds a "normal" politician's reluctance to face those with uncomfortable questions. Her husband has ruled by decree, riding roughshod over congress and exhibiting ignorance of the checks-and-balances guaranteed by the constitution. Cristina too may now rely on a subservient congress, to push legislation through steamroller-like. There is little hope that she will encourage congress to pass the access to information law which she enthusiastically championed while in opposition (1999-2001) yet kept firmly in her drawer as chair of the senate's constitutional-affairs commission.

Buenos Aires on inauguration-day, 10 December 2007, will offer a unique sight: a husband passing the blue-and-white presidential sash of Argentina to his wife. Néstor may be passing many other less obvious legacies and more difficult ones to Cristina to handle. Whether "Queen Cristina" will have the necessary skills to continue the rule of the "penguins" beyond 2011, it is too early to say.

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