Argentina’s Elections: Another First Lady Has an Excellent Chance of Becoming President on Her Own Merits
by Vera von Kreutzbruck
Unless there is a dramatic and highly improbable last-minute shift in the voter polls, the 28th of October will prove historic for Argentina. That day the country is expected to elect a female president. In an interesting parallel with the upcoming US elections, the candidate leading the polls is not the ex, but the current First Lady, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, 54. Like her US counterpart, Hillary Clinton, Ms. Kirchner is a prominent senator, and the head of the powerful Constitutional Affairs Committee. And, having served in both houses of Congress, she has long been one of her husband’s most trusted advisors. Given Argentina’s macho-driven society, it is truly remarkable how she has risen to the top of the country’s political ranks.
Dynamic pair climbs the political ladder together
The Kirchners, whose political careers have skyrocketed ever since they met in law school, is a marriage of like-minded personalities and goals. One year after they married, in 1976, they moved to Río Gallegos, capital city of the remote but oil-rich Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, where they opened a law firm together.
In 1987, Néstor Kirchner became mayor of Río Gallegos, and a few years later took office as governor of Santa Cruz, a position he held for 12 years. Finally, in 2003 he became president of Argentina with merely 22 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Cristina had also methodically climbed the political ranks. In 1989 she became a deputy for Santa Cruz province, and in 1995 she was promoted to national senator for the province of Buenos Aires.
Who is Cristina Fernández de Kirchner?
Argentina has had a history of powerful women, at least during the Peronist movement. In the 1940s, the entire world came to know Juan Domingo Perón’s second wife, Eva, who as First Lady of Argentina was a strong unofficial political leader revered by the working classes until her death of cancer at 33 in 1952. Juan Perón was ousted from power in a military coup in 1955. Then, in 1973, when he returned from exile, Isabel, his third wife, became vice-president. When the 78-year-old Perón died just over a year later, in July 1974, Isabel was his legal successor. Thus, she became not only Argentina's first female president, but at 43 the youngest Latin American head of state. However, two years later she was deposed by a military coup.
Some in the international media have rushed to call Cristina the new “Evita”, but the only thing they have in common is the fact that they are both women and that they both possess a notorious weakness for expensive and luxurious clothes. While Evita was a radio and film actress and Isabel was a cabaret dancer before rising to power, political experts suggest that a more appropriate comparison for Cristina Kirchner may be her American peer, Hillary Clinton. And, indeed, there are similarities: both are ambitious and conscious of their power. Like Hillary, Cristina is also a lawyer, and they both come from provincial cities.
Change or continuity?
In theory, Cristina is situated to the center-left of the political spectrum, but in practice, she is perceived more as a pragmatist than as a bearer of strong ideology.
She is a shrewd politician who stands out in Congress for her notoriously convincing speeches. Both Cristina and Néstor are known for their strong character, but she has proven less moody and confrontational than her husband - a trait that could help her bring her plans for Argentina to fruition if she becomes president. Sergio Berensztein, a political scientist at Torcuato Di Tella University in Buenos Aires notes that Ms. Kirchner is by nature a negotiator. She appeals to the middle class, whose concerns include crime - more so than her husband.
Cristina’s campaign slogan proclaims,“Change has only just begun” (El cambio recién empieza) But so far, Argentines have no idea just what this so-called “change” actually means. Since launching her candidacy, she has not offered any further clues in her speeches as to how exactly this change will take place. Up to now she has promised more jobs and less poverty, as all presidential hopefuls do. Does the slogan imply that she will carry on in the same manner as her husband? Does is affirm continuity of policy? Mrs. Kirchner may be vague deliberately, unwilling to discuss in detail the recent scandals that have rocked her husband’s administration, lest her analysis might seem to offer implicit criticism of her husband.
In recent months there has been much speculation as to whether Peronist president Néstor Kirchner would enter a re-election race. Or he could let his wife step in instead, offering voters a fresh face. When he finally handed the nomination over to her, his decision came as a surprise for most Argentines since two-thirds of them had said they approved of his job performance. During his tenure, the country has experienced its fifth successive year of economic growth at over 8 percent.
A change of face for a weakening government?
However, while the Kirchner presidency has been very successful overall, lately a series of corruption scandals have tainted his administration, costing him credibility with the public. The biggest scandal occurred last March, when opposition politicians and a judge uncovered evidence of up to $25 million USD in illegal payments to government officials in a natural-gas pipeline expansion project for sub-contracting services that were never actually performed. One of the foreign companies implicated in the bribery case is the Swedish construction company Skanska. The investigation is still ongoing.
To make matters worse, all through this unusually cold winter, the president was unable to solve the country’s grave energy crisis that caused blackouts and fuel shortages.
Then, most recently, Felisa Miceli, the former economy minister, was forced to resign in June when $64,000 USD in cash was found in her office, which she said was meant for a property purchase.
Meanwhile, the country’s inflation is on the rise, and the government has been accused of manipulating the numbers in order to hide the problem. The official inflation figure quoted is 9% over the past 12 months. But Ernesto Kritz, a labor economist, calculates that the price of staples rose by 15.4% between December and May alone. Price controls have lead to occasional shortages of milk and meat. Lately Argentines are more skeptical of the president’s policies. They fear that the Kirchner administration has not really acknowledged the gravity of the situation, potentially setting the country up for yet another explosive economic crisis.
What are Ms. Kirchner’s advantages?
The First Lady’s biggest advantage in the presidential election race is the lack of a united and strong opposition. Until now only two candidates have managed to curry double figures in the polls – between 10 and 15 percent – Roberto Lavagna, former economy minister and responsible for Argentina’s economic recovery, and Elisa Carrió, a left-wing anti-corruption campaigner. But it is unlikely that they will pose any serious threat to Cristina – as Argentines call her.Despite these recent events, political analysts say that his resignation is not actually the end of Néstor Kirchner’s political career, but rather a strategic move ensuring that the Kirchners will retain power on a long-term basis. (Presidents in Argentina are restricted to two consecutive four-year terms, but they are allowed to run again after a four-year break from the helm.) If Cristina wins the elections, her inauguration would pave the way for her husband to run for reelection in 2011; the couple would effectively succeed each other in office through 2019.
If Cristina is the next president, the most meaningful changes she might effect are in foreign policy. She would almost certainly seek to strengthen Argentina’s ties with the United States and Europe, and keep Venezuela at a distance.
While Néstor Kirchner has shown an extraordinary disinterest for foreign relations, his wife has made a string of overseas visits in recent months. Having just returned from diplomatic visits to Germany and Austria, she will also visit Chile and Brazil in September.
And at the end of September, the Kirchners will travel to New York to attend the United Nations’ general assembly. Most likely, both power couples, the Clintons and the Kirchners, will meet for an image-boosting photo-op when the Argentine president attends the annual meeting of Bill Clinton's Global Initiative where world leaders will discuss "the world's most pressing challenges" – education, energy and climate change, global health and poverty.
The Argentine president will join President Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Republic, Mr. Luis Alberto Moreno, President of the Inter-American Development Bank and moderator, Mr. Fareed Zakaria, Editor of Newsweek International for a discussion on "Latin America and the Pressures of Globalization".
Only time will tell if the Kirchner legacy will prevail, but in the meantime, their successive bid for presidency is a warning sign that all Argentines should heed carefully lest a dynasty weaken the country’s democracy.
All photos courtesy of Presidencia de la Nación Argentina.
About the Author
Vera von Kreutzbruck was born in Argentina. She started her career in journalism at the English language newspaper, Buenos Aires Herald. After a fellowship in Germany three years ago, she decided to settle in Berlin. She currently works as a freelance journalist contributing to media in Europe and Latin America. Her articles focus on international news and culture in Germany and the European Union.