The Kirchner model: king and queen penguin

Celia Szusterman
17 July 2007

Argentina's president, Nèstor Kirchner, likes to refer to himself as a penguin: both because of his prominent nose as because of his roots in the penguin-rich Patagonian province of Santa Cruz. Yet there are further features that make the comparison apposite: the male king Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) incubates the egg while the female goes to the open sea to seek food; they do not build nests, and the chick is cared for by both parents. President Kirchner has been saying for a long time that "the next president will be a he-penguin or a she-penguin". It seems it is now the turn to pass the egg back to the female of the species, or perhaps they feel the chick has already been hatched and they need to take turns caring for it.

Mrs Kirchner (or the "first lady", Senator Cristina E Fernàndez de Kirchner) will be the ruling Peronist Party candidate in the 28 October 2007 presidential elections; after confirming her intention to run on 2 July, she launches her campaign at a rally in La Plata on 19 July. Her husband could have stood for another four-year term, so much speculation on his reasons to step aside in favour of his wife has focused on his motivations.

The most plausible starting-point may also be the most simple: the truism that no ambitious political leader relinquishes power voluntarily, but that it is easier to do when you know you are still going to be in control. Since he took office on 20 August 2003, Nèstor Kirchner has governed Argentina almost exclusively alone, while relying on three trusted allies: his wife, the legal and technical secretary to the presidency, and the head of the cabinet. This "quartet" can without doubt be held responsible for every aspect of policy in Argentina today. Kirchner has made a calculation that he can rule from behind the scenes even after he formally relinquishes his position.

Celia Szusterman is principal 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)An economy in trouble

Among the several reasons President Kirchner may have for stepping aside, two stand out. The first is his deep knowledge of his fellow Peronists. He knows that if he offered himself for re-election and won, he would become the day after the elections not just a lame-duck president, but a hated lame-duck. His personal style - referred to proudly by his acolytes as "the style K" - can be better described as arrogant, rude, intolerant, bullying and confrontational, and it has made him many enemies. A certain "social fatigue" with a presidential approach routinely based on the launch of raucous, extensive diatribes against undefined "enemies" of his "model" is one of the factors influencing the election on 24 June 2007 of the quiet, composed, right-of-centre businessman (and owner of Boca Juniors football club) Mauricio Macri as mayor of Buenos Aires.

The second reason for Kirchner's departure is his awareness that until now, no Latin American president was able successfully to finish a second term. Most who overcame the hurdle of re-election were either ejected in violent demonstrations, vilified as a result of misdemeanour (like Argentina's Carlos Menem), and/or harried by rivals, the media and popular mobilisation. The setbacks faced by Kirchner's favoured candidates in a series of provincial elections in recent months (including in Tierra del Fuego on 24 June) has confirmed a freefall in the president's opinion-poll ratings.

Much of this is owed to a damaging set of economic indices that has reminded Argentineans of the dark days of the 1980s: rising inflation (independent economists predict a rate of 30% for 2007,while the official rate is estimated at 15%), an energy crisis which experts have been anticipating since the 2002 devaluation, the freezing of tariffs and a fall in productive, high-quality investment. A number of corruption scandals affecting close collaborators of the president - among them, the finance minister Felisa Miceli, who resigned on 16 July - have only intensified the spreading sense of insecurity in the great conurbation of Buenos Aires.

The discontent is intensified by the realisation that the government has been dilatory if not downright neglectful in doing anything about these difficulties. Instead, Kirchner says the energy "problem"' has resulted from the spectacular growth of the economy and ensuing rising demand, as well as the "whimsical" refusal of utility companies to make the necessary investments.

Thus, Kirchner's political dilemma is also a far-too-belated acknowledgment of a reality that contradicts the president's plans or perceptions (after banning the use of the word "crisis" in reference to the energy situation, the president and his coterie announced a "total energy" emergency plan on 13 July). But the people can see what is in front of the penguin's nose: many businesses have had to alter their work shifts since they are not allowed to consume energy during the day, in order to keep the supplies running to residential users just months before the presidential elections. Yet power-cuts affect everybody, and diesel fuel and gas are now scarce (this in a country that until recently was both self-reliant and exporting gas to Chile and Uruguay) as well as electricity.

In the larger economy, the agricultural sector and manufacturing are suffering. This is worrying, since the buoyancy of agribusiness has fuelled both Argentina's unprecedented rates of growth from 2003 (itself largely a result of the China-effect on demand and the price of commodities) and the fiscal surplus at the heart of Kirchner's economic "model".

In this light, Cristina Kirchner's campaign will be presented as (Gordon Brown -style, it might be said) "continuity with change". Kirchner himself has said that "Cristina will continue with our successful model for the country, introducing the necessary changes of a new stage". What those changes will be, and what the "new stage" is, nobody quite knows. Those who wish for a more enlightened, realistic and stable Argentina read into his words the hope that the president has realised that his "model" is threatened by inflation, uncontrolled public spending eroding the fiscal surplus, and the lack of investment; and that in consequence Cristina will set a more explicitly pro-market direction that leads Argentina further away from ideological or rhetorical association with Hugo Chávez's "21st-century socialism".

In truth, Kirchner's true Peronism means that his dalliance with any "Bolivarian-style revolution" was always little more than a political convenience, making it easier to ask Chávez for help than the hated International Monetary Fund - one of the president's many enemies, targeted as the standard-bearer of "neo-liberalism", blamed for what he has described as "the hell we are still in".

openDemocracy authors analyse Argentinean politics:

Ivan Briscoe, "Argentina: how politicians survive while people starve" (17 April 2003)

Michele Wucker, "Argentina and the IMF: will they benefit from hindsight?"
(4 September 2003)

Mariano Aguirre, "The many cities of Buenos Aires"
(16 February 2005)

Ivan Briscoe, "Nèstor Kirchner's Argentina: a journey from hell" (25 May 2005)

Horacio Verbitsky, "Breaking the silence: the Catholic Church in Argentina and the dirty war'" (28 July 2005)

Carlos Forment, "The democratic dribble: Buenos Aires's politics of football" (16 June 2006)

Ivan Briscoe, "Argentina and the Malvinas, twenty-five years on"
(2 April 2007) Populist vs progressive

But why, leaving the rhetoric aside, is Cristina prepared at all to inherit an economic poisoned chalice from her husband? It may be that shared ambition and lust for power play a part. The couple's political calculation is that she will take care of the "penguin chick" (Argentina) until the next election in 2011, when she would return it to the "father". A Kirchner-penguin dynasty would be born, to join so many other provincial dynasties (in Salta, Santiago del Estero, Neuquén, San Luis...) that have blighted Argentina. But to make that happen, the October 2007 election will first have to be negotiated; and Cristina will be forced to signal what innovations of style or substance she is prepared to offer.

As far as style is concerned, she can hardly fail to be more glamorous than her husband, whose lack of charm, charisma and even manners and common courtesy are renowned. Nèstor Kirchner likes to present himself as an "ordinary man". Cristina would hate such a description: her shopping trips to New York, Madrid and Paris are frequent, and she is almost diva-like in the care she takes about her clothes and presentation. In contrast to her husband, who dislikes foreign travel (before 2003, the couple's only foreign trip had been to Miami) she has taken to it as a penguin to the high seas.

Cristina Kirchner is no Evita: she lacks the charisma, the touchy-feely approach and empathy with the poor and downtrodden. Nor do her political skills match those of Hillary Clinton (though her capacity to generate intense dislike is comparable). However, she is just as authoritarian as both Evita and her husband: as intolerant of criticism, let alone opposition. Her arrogance led to her isolation from her fellow parliamentarians in the Peronist bloc in the 1990s; now she has taken her revenge, and controls the senate as any old-style caudillo controls his estancia.

One word certain to provoke a fit of fury in the president is "populist"; both Kirchners prefer to describe themselves as "progressive". Their incessant denunciation of the neo-liberal policies of the 1990s apart, there is only one area where they can stake a claim on the term: the centrality that human rights have taken since they came to power. Much of this emphasis, however, is a matter of rhetoric and presentation.

It is difficult to measure the effect of congress's annulment of the so-called amnesty laws passed in the 1980s, and by many of the same legislators who were obliged in a new vote to declare their own decisions null and void, as few cases have come to court. In any case, less kind critics have argued that the Kirchners are motivated by a sense of guilt over their own past to "overact" in this area. The fact is that the Kirchners have portrayed their experience under the dictatorship of 1976-83 far different from the prosaic reality: in 1976, when the military took over, they did not go underground or join any "resistance" but instead decamped to remote Patagonia, Nèstor Kirchner's birthplace, where they eventually set up a legal practice and started amassing a fortune based on property. When democracy was re-established in 1983, they embarked on political careers that saw Nèstor become first mayor of Rio Gallegos and then governor of Santa Cruz, while Cristina became a provincial legislator before becoming a national legislator and then senator.

Cristina is indeed populist in what matters: she needs to be adored (irrespective of her ability to inspire such sentiments), seeks an unmediated link with the people, and disdains institutions, parties, congress, and the press (which are seen either as impediments to the populist project to "refound the nation" or, in the case of the press, competitors for public opinion).

The hostility to the media runs in the family. In his four years as president, Kirchner has not given one press conference, nor any interviews to foreign journalists. During her 2005 campaign for the senate, Cristina Kirchner refused to debate with her rivals or to meet the press. In 2006, she also delivered to the state TV channel a two-hour speech in the senate in favour of delegating legislative powers to the executive (i.e. her husband) - when in opposition, she had been equally passionate in opposing such delegation. Congress, dominated by Kirchner's Peronists (there are non-Kirchner Peronists) voted in favour of a law that effectively undercut its own power: the "decrees of need and urgency" were among the "superpowers" delegated to the executive during a supposed continuing state of economic emergency.

Cristina Kirchner's "pragmatism" is a conveniently evasive description of her inconsistencies as a legislator. As senator for the oil-rich province of Santa Cruz in the 1990s, for example, she wholeheartedly supported the privatisation of YPF, the state oil company - but is now in favour of its "Argentinisation". In that period, she also became the champion of a bill on access to information - but has now introduced amendments which have effectively killed it. As chair of the senate committee on constitutional affairs, she persuaded the government to change the membership of the body charged with the appointment and removal of judges in a way that could compromise judicial independence.

More disturbingly, this important committee which she presides over has met only once since December 2006. Among the many matters awaiting its attention is political reform, which (as governor) Nèstor Kirchner voted in favour of in February 2002 (in the middle of the crisis that had seen five presidents in fifteen days). Nothing has been done since, and the issues considered for reform are still as necessary today as they were then: how electoral campaigns are run, how political parties are funded, how the electoral system should work, how access to information should be guaranteed.

A model couple

The Kirchner "model" in Argentina looks unsustainable, based as it is on deepening state involvement in the economy, extending price controls, juggling the exchange rate, and expanding public spending. Nèstor Kirchner himself could not reverse such policies without appearing to be making a u-turn. Perhaps then optimists will be proved right, and if elected Cristina Kirchner will be able to change it. Yet she is unlikely to give up the hegemonic tendencies of her husband, continuing with the concentration of power, which inexorably leads to the devaluation of democracy.

Politics in Argentina thus seems set to continue to oscillate between the hegemonic will of whoever occupies the Casa Rosada, and, when the going gets tough, social groups who mobilise on the streets to satisfy grievances rather than seek a political solution (roadblocks by piqueteros are a case in point). Some believe that with Cristina Kirchner as candidate, the divided opposition may still be able to force a second round in October. Cristina needs to get more than 45% in the first round to win outright, or at least 40% as long as she leads with at least a 10% advantage. The current opinion polls show the support for the three opposition candidates - Roberto Lavagna, Elisa Carrió and Ricardo López Murphy - as trailing far behind the first lady.

The ignorance of or (worse still) the disdain for republican values that Cristina Kirchner showed when her husband became president in 2003, does not bode well for the consolidation of a liberal democracy in Argentina. At the time, and apparently unaware of the Robespierran resonances of the phrase, Cristina Kirchner said she wished to be known as "first citizen" rather than "first lady". If the Kirchners have their way, a new political dynasty is in the making. Will the Argentinean chick flourish under its parents? The king and queen penguin give few grounds for hope.

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