Argentina’s President Cristina

  • An important moment in Argentine History
  • Correct but cool relations with the Bush administration, but ties with a Hillarized Washington could be interesting
  • Cristina renowned as Argentina's Hillary, but without the edge
  • Argentine-Brazilian and Argentine-Venezuelan relations will be closely watched, but ties to Caracas are likely to be closer

Her relatively weak competition is beginning to sputter as Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner heads for an inevitable victory in Sunday's presidential election. Although her husband, current President Néstor Kirchner, has become somewhat derisively famous for his dour personality and harmless eccentricities, he repeatedly has proven himself to be a man of courage when circumstances demand it, like in standing up and being prepared to confront the military high command over the death-squad amnesty issue, financial elites and the notorious Peronist bureaucracy.

If this is to be a dynasty, then Argentina could do far worse. As for the president's wife Cristina, there is every reason to anticipate that she will have a robust presidency and could rise to true greatness, particularly if the economy continues to perform well due to bounteous agricultural revenues and surging prices for the hemisphere's broad spectrum of natural resources.

As Sunday's polling date draws near, the question is not so much whether she will win, but will it be by a plurality—thus requiring a second round—or will she obtain an absolute majority in the initial vote. Few in Washington believe that it will be the former. However, Senator Kirchner's campaign has been thrown a couple of curveballs in the past few weeks.

Although she continues to maintain a steady lead in the polls—coming in consistently at around 45 percent— a number of sticky issues have unexpectedly emerged, forcing the current administration to forthrightly deal with them rather than brushing them under the rug until after the election. One example of President Kirchner's at times dilatory personality can be seen in his strategy towards the environmental dispute with Uruguay over the cellulose mill along the Río Uruguay. Because this problem wouldn't just go away, he has influenced his wife to engage the bitter issue during the campaign, something she wanted to avoid. A recent tide of events has challenged the current administration as well as Cristina's campaign, and the results, which could have done either severe damage or considerable good, depending how they were resolved, seem to be swinging in favor of both of the Kirchners.

Kirchner Plays the Falkland Card
One issue that has been resurrected is the matter of the Malvinas (the Falklands). The question of sovereignty over the South Atlantic islands has been a festering issue for the country ever since its defeat in the Falklands conflict in 1982. Legal title to the Islas Malvinas (as they are also known) as well as South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands has been in dispute since the end of the conflict, with no real solution in sight. The British claim ownership of the islands as does Argentina, and the years since the end of the military conflict have been defined by sometimes very shrill political badinage between the two nations. This may be why, as a cautionary step, Britain announced on October 17 a claim to the offshore continental shelf of Antarctica, which overlaps one already made by Argentina, past grudges were awakened. In response, the Kirchner government boldly responded by re-asserting its claim over a slice of the Antarctic, as well as the Falklands and South Georgia.

By asserting his authority, Kirchner has, by association, strengthened his wife's campaign by means of thumping the tub of patriotism and national pride, qualities not to be minimalized in an eruptive Argentine society. But even more so, his actions reminded Argentines that this was a man who reinvented himself by emerging from obscurity as a provincial governor and then, as president, dared to stand up to the Buenos Aires financial elite, international bond holders, the Paris Club, as well as armed forces and got away with it by staring down his opponents. Meanwhile, his wife was emerging as a solid legislator and person capable of having convictions and the self-confidence to voice them. The inevitable comparison with the other Senator—Hillary Clinton—reveals her to be as solid as the former, without the negatives and calculated centrist positions taken by the shrewd lady from the North.

A topic that has continually proven to haunt the Kirchners is the one of inflation. Tomatoes have become the new popular symbol of the inflation-driven plight of Argentine consumers as the price of the fruit rose so drastically in recent weeks that it triggered a boycott. On Monday October 8, First Lady Kirchner defended the government's official inflation statistics that had been issued by the government agency, Indec, against charges that they had been "fixed." Senator Kirchner insists that the inflation figure was accurate as well as perfectly normal for an economy that was growing so quickly. President Kirchner praised the boycotters after cutting a deal with major supermarkets in order to have them decrease prices by five percent. He dealt with the issue very smartly, thus containing any potential political damage to either himself or his wife. Although many are still unconvinced that any progress has been made regarding the nagging inflation problem, the Kirchners successfully avoided a potentially damaging backlash from angry consumers in regards to the tomato price-rise. However, on October 23, a similar boycott of pumpkins and potatoes followed amid the continued complaints of manipulated inflation figures by Indec, with their authors insisting that they should be higher than claimed by the agency.

Kirchner and the Lending Agencies
In another blow against the inflation mongers, President Kirchner has increased the pressure on banks to boost lending as well as cut interest rates in order to consolidate economic growth in the country, and defended the steps in a meeting with the country's three top banking associations. But, appearing to have taken a proactive stance on the subject, he exhibited the intent of both Kirchners to deal with financial challenges immediately in order to abort the political damage they could cause if left unaddressed. It seems that the Kirchner's political opponents, by drawing their swords over the inflation question, viewed this as more of a publicity stunt than anything else, particularly because the issue is being publicly worked over just before the election in order to make the state of the economy into a very political issue.

High Finances
However, the country's huge foreign debt is an issue that cannot be dealt with in the same politicized manner. The $6 billion it owes to the Paris Club keeps coming up lately, and considering the Kirchner administration's testy relationship with the International Monetary Fund, any resolution won't be easy to achieve, in spite of Kirchner's seemingly cooperative air. After repaying the Argentine IMF debt in full in 2006 in order to avoid onerous conditions imposed by the agency, President Kirchner is in no hurry to jump back in bed with the organization. But, according to Paris Club rules, a country presenting an economic program has to be approved by the IMF before it can aspire to renegotiate its debt. Thus, Kirchner may have to swallow his pride and work with the IMF in order to reintegrate his country with the global economic system, while at the same time advancing his wife's election prospects as well as her later successes once she is inaugurated after triumphing in general elections.

Through a series of calculated moves, President Kirchner has made a more direct connection to his wife's campaign than was thought would be the case, and through this, has strengthened her footing. Although the inflation issue has yet to be fully resolved, the couple has largely neutralized it by tackling it head on, thus projecting a sense of strong leadership to the country and its electorate. It is a certainty that Cristina will spend a good deal more time on emphasizing global involvement than was the case of her husband, who clearly was indifferent to the pomp and ceremony of diplomatic protocol. Senator Cristina is likely to be far more venturesome than was her husband or her Washington counterpart when it comes to relations with Latin America. President Kirchner's relationship with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez was at times tense, the personality differences between the austere Kirchner and the buffo Chávez being too wide to easily bridge. But his wife has noticeably warmed up her feelings for Chávez, and perhaps even more than her husband, she is grateful for how Chávez came to the rescue of the Argentine economy. These factors are all so important in this election that perhaps they could be enough to convince the electorate to reject allegations that Kirchner may have been guilty of manipulating official data, and that his wife is not made of the right stuff.