La Casa Rosada Turns Pink: Cristina Kirchner’s Impressive Bid for the Argentine Presidency

For another discussion of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, refer to COHA Director Larry Birns’ appearance on CNN’s “Your World Today” on July 22, 2007.

As Néstor Kirchner wraps up his term as president of Argentina, First Lady and Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is waiting in the wings to take over his roost in the upcoming October 28 presidential elections. On July 1, she officially announced her candidacy with a statement released by Chief of Cabinet Alberto Fernández, ending months of speculation over which Kirchner would run on the ruling Frente para la Victoria party ticket. While Cristina is all but certain to win the October ballot due to a lack of credible choices among the heavily split opposition, a Cristina Kirchner presidency seems destined to serve up more of the same of what has been accomplished in the past four years by her husband, but decidedly with more style and greater panache. Meanwhile, the prospects of Cristina’s presidency have led to questioning what some already are describing as “monarchical democracy,” in a nation where the ruling Peronist Party typically has been the pathway to disastrous results in the past.

A Woman Who Wears Many Hats (And Looks Quite Stylish in all of Them, Too)
Cristina Fernandez is a lawyer by training who has been Néstor’s wife since shortly after they met in law school; she currently serves as the senator representing Buenos Aires province, a post she has held since 2005. In fact, she had a national political reputation for years. Even before her husband came to the forefront, she was a formidable political figure who was known throughout the country as well as a local legislator since 1989. Thus, Cristina is seen as a woman wearing many hats. Not only does she wear them, she wears them well, with a reputation as a glamorous First Lady whose poise and style has been registered before an ever-widening audience. As stated in The Guardian, “in contrast to her blunt and often dour husband, who won the presidency in 2003 almost by default, the first lady is seen as a more glamorous, worldly figure who can mix as easily with foreign leaders as with grassroot Peronists.”

Yet, much is still unknown about her. Paula Alonso, professor of political history at Buenos Aires’ Universidad de San Andres, told COHA in an interview, that “Cristina has been quite a mystery figure in the past few years — she hasn’t been appearing very much in politics until now.” Recent efforts have been made to consciously raise her international profile and project her sophistication as Argentina’s next president, to attract possible foreign investors and the assistance of key members of the financial community. One way of doing this has been with widely publicized, government-sponsored official visits to Switzerland, France, the U.S., Venezuela, Ecuador and Mexico. These international flag-waving trips have demonstrated the greater attention Cristina is likely to give to the nation’s foreign affairs, specifically improving relations with the U.S. and Europe, while slightly distancing Argentina from Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. According to Nicolás Ducoté, of the Buenos Aires think-tank CIPPEC, there is the difference between Mr. and Mrs. Kirchner, “He needed to be more populist, she’s going to be more internationalist.”

Even though her international visibility is growing and solid achievements are being established for her to credibly become the next Argentine president, other Argentines view Cristina and her ambitions in a different light. Despite the fact that Néstor has stated his admiration for his wife, (for example, declaring in a local radio broadcast in May, “I think Cristina can offer the quality of a stateswoman, the leap in institutional quality the country needs, the experience, the reflection, the study”), others disagree. James Neilson, formerly with the English-language Buenos Aires Herald during the peril of military rule, and now a political analyst and columnist for the Noticias newsweekly, echoes the sentiments of these critics, saying “she comes off as very strident and bossy. She’d be an awful candidate.” However, Néstor’s cabinet chief, Alberto Fernández, begs to differ, exclaiming, at the announcement of her candidacy, “this woman is not just the wife of a president, she is a woman who has enough political successes, enough political clout to govern this country, and I have no doubt she will be an extraordinary president.”

A Vote for Cristina Brings Monarchical Democracy?
While many residents of the political wing of La Casa Rosada have faith in her abilities, a growing number of average Argentine citizens do not believe the rhetoric coming from the presidential throne and are concerned with what some see as the Kirchner government’s increasingly autocratic tendencies. Despite prior claims that it was her choice to run for president, it is obvious that it was ultimately Kirchner who designated his wife to take over his spot. As also said by others, clearly, “this is monarchical democracy… this is no democracy,” Ricardo Gjivoje, a former Argentine senior official of the Organization of American States (OAS), commented in an interview with COHA. The general consensus seems to be that the president is promoting his wife as the government’s presidential candidate so as to position himself for a return to power in 2011. Since Argentine presidents are barred from seeking consecutive re-election more than once, but are allowed to run in later years if someone else has a term in between, many analysts and Argentine citizens alike believe that the Kirchners are setting themselves up to rule the nation until 2015 or possibly to 2019, simply by alternating in power for the next 12 years. As Eduardo van der Kooy, a columnist for Argentina’s largest national newspaper, Clarin, has noted, “logic . . . makes one think that Kirchner and Cristina, through successive terms, are seeking to eternalize their power. Kirchner has always spoken of the need for three straight terms to consolidate his economic and political model.”

Kirchner’s former economy minister and, up to now, Cristina’s main opposition in the presidential race, Roberto Lavagna, agrees that, “the government has become dangerously populist and authoritarian, because the only thing it wants is to stay in power at any price.” This sounds dangerously similar to the Peronist Party’s original cohorts — Juan Perón and his two ambitious wives, Evita and later Isabel, who ruled Argentina for two years after his death in 1974. Cristina Kirchner has been compared to Evita Perón with her glamorous style and her adulating popularity with the poor and middle classes. Moreover, the allegations of having ambitions to run a “monarchical democracy” can be found both at home and overseas, with the Kirchner’s repeatedly being compared to the Clintons; both couples met in law school and are rumored to have enacted pacts with their partners to maintain power within the family and within the national government. Much like Hillary, Cristina has been very careful to carve out her public identity as a legislator as well as a politician, and not primarily as a First Lady, or wife to a husband who previously held power. Cristina welcomes comparisons as the “new Evita” and admits admiring Hillary Clinton, who presently is a front runner candidate for the U.S. presidential elections in 2008. However, this is not guaranteed, and it is likely that rule by “royal families” dressed up as democracies is not inevitable, but depends on events still to come.

Obstacles to the Presidency — Mole Hills, Not Mountains
Despite the fact that Néstor Kirchner is credited with lifting Argentina from the doldrums after the deep economic crisis of 2001-2002, and that the economy has experienced a growth rate exceeding 8 percent for four consecutive years since he took office in 2003, his government has lost much of its credibility as his term draws to a close. This is not to say that Kirchner did not well deserve the plaudits. It was he who dared to strip the military felons of the era of the “Dirty War” of their immunity, attack anti-Semitic bigotry from Argentine national life, as well as the distortions of Argentina’s asymmetrical economy. Once touting high approval ratings at 82 percent near the beginning of his term, Kirchner’s popularity with Argentines now resides at only 52 percent, according to a June 2007 poll. This is a result of steadily increasing double-digit inflation figures affecting consumer goods, an energy crisis due to a particularly severe winter, as well as a teacher strike in Buenos Aires.

The Kirchner family name has also been stained by a public works bribery scandal involving cabinet members close to the president, alleged corruption by former economy minister Felisa Miceli (who just recently resigned as a consequence) and environment secretary Romina Picolotti, and an investigation into possible tax evasion involving government weapon sales by defense minister Nilda Garré. These situations already are being used by the opposition to discredit the government; however, thus far, the divided opposition has been unable to seriously damage the image of the Kirchners, particularly Cristina, even as such disconcerting problems continue to mount. Analysts are already predicting that the energy shortages and inflation problems are likely to continue throughout Cristina’s presidency. If the economic situation stagnates or even worsens, Cristina’s term of office predictably will be riddled with debilitating moments, leaving her to pay the price for it politically, even though the situation is mainly of her husband’s doing. As The Economist has predicted, “the next president will face some difficult economic decisions, as growth starts to slow and distortions mount.” But, this of course could be said of almost every democratic president who ever held office.

Changing Political Horizons
Since Kirchner was very popular at the beginning of his presidency, he had hoped his high ratings would transfer to his wife and open the door for an easy landslide victory by Cristina which would allow for his policies to continue. Yet, due to growing public discontent, some political analysts are now issuing a radical finding that questions the pair’s ability to retain power in their hands. If she does win the presidential election, Kirchner’s weakened political standing may make it harder for Cristina to rule the country. A more cautious and perhaps more accurate prediction is that rather than get the necessary or at least a job-wining margin that would gain the presidency in the first round, she may be forced into a second round which she would be all but certain to win.

According to Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer, Argentina’s political horizon is changing and Néstor Kirchner’s aura of invincibility is waning, as evidenced by the defeat of key Kirchner allies in recently-held provincial elections. A series of political setbacks have occurred in which opposition candidates have won in key provincial elections; namely Mauricio Macri, president of the Boca Juniors soccer club who had aligned himself with the rightwing Propuesta Republicana (PRO), defeating Kirchner’s education minister Daniel Filmus in the Buenos Aires mayoral race on June 24 by an overwhelming 61 to 39 percent vote. Interestingly, Cristina Kirchner was all but sheltered from this electoral campaign, as her presence was strategically kept out of the heated race, leaving Néstor to absorb the negative effects associated with Filmus’ humiliating defeat. Additionally, the governorship of Tiego del Fuego was grabbed up by Fabiana Ríos of the Alternativa por una República de Iguales (ARI). Ríos, who overwhelmed the incumbent and Kirchner ally Hugo Coccaro by a 52 to 46 percent vote, will be the first female governor in Argentina. However, these provincial election losses have not done much to strip the Kirchner team of its self-confidence as it prepares for the October presidential elections, even though analysts predict that other local elections in Sante Fe, Cordoba and Mendoza may also be awarded to opposition candidates.

Another obstacle Cristina faces in her bid to become Argentina’s next president is her lack of executive experience, despite her legislative and local political career spanning almost 20 years. Cristina’s critics contend that she does not have enough of an administrative background to qualify her for the nation’s top job. “Her experience in the Senate does not provide much evidence for executive management and she is very closely identified with her husband and his policies,” said Riordan Roett, Director of Latin American studies at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University in Washington. But there are others who would heatedly take the opposing view that there are very few political leaders who would survive the political test posed by Professor Roett. In the world of politics where oftentimes it is who you know and not what you know that is of principle concern, she has the best connections of anyone — as Néstor’s wife. Her lack of executive experience may not be a problem at all, seeing as many believe her administration would merely be an extension of her husband’s center-left policies, and that if any changes were to occur, as The Economist has predicted, “all this adds up to nuances of difference, rather than a change of course.”

In addition to working toward a Bill Clinton-style mission of reinvigorating the Peronist Party power base when he leaves office, Néstor Kirchner will no doubt also play a behind-the-scenes consultative role of silently co-governing the country, perhaps also serving in an above surface role as a formal White-House like advisor to Cristina much like she did for him during his presidency. Néstor’s role in knitting alliances with factions of the Peronist Party is crucial to the Kirchners ambitions to serve alternating consecutive presidential terms. This is especially true since popular opinion of Cristina, according to Paula Alonso, is that “she is capable, very intelligent, though a bit domineering and not inclined to negotiation and coalition-building.” Though Cristina may have a different style of governance than her husband, according to New York Times reporter Larry Rohter, “any government she leads would be the same package in a different wrapping.” Regardless, the Kirchner family will continue to rule Argentina as a power pair.

Creation of a Candidata
In order to maintain public support for Cristina’s candidacy in the wake of Néstor’s waning credibility with the Argentine people, Buenos Aires has begun a campaign of presenting Cristina on her own terms and wearing her own political garb, rather than as a continuation of Néstor’s reign. However, many political analysts, including Professor Alonso, believe that there is not much of a sign of change and renovation under a Cristina presidency. Alonso has pointed out that “it is impossible for the people not to think this is a continuation of Kirchner — especially with Néstor’s mixed legacy.” Predictions are that no profound changes in economic or political policy would occur, due to constraints in the budget for FY 2008, and that any state reforms Cristina might propose regarding social security, pensions, and tax reform would take place later, if at all. It is also becoming increasingly clear that the voting public may not be able to entirely divorce Cristina from corruption scandals continuously being unearthed in the final days of the Néstor presidency. Alonso also observed that while “Cristina will be linked to her husband’s misachievements, on the other hand, she will also be linked to changes he brought into politics, particularly human rights policies which are quite popular with Argentines.” Luckily for the Kirchners, despite minor bumps in the road, they should be able to continue a policy of growing concentration of power in the executive office of government which they themselves will be able to utilize since the opposition has not proven to be a particularly formidable force.

Counting Her Chickens Before They Hatch
Recent voter intention polls in Argentina show that Cristina could win between 46 and 48 percent of the vote in October, which, while 10 percentage points lower than estimates if Néstor had decided to run instead, is still sufficient to give her a distinct advantage in the race over a singularly divided opposition. While these figures suggest the probability of the presidential election advancing to a second round (since candidates must win at least 45 percent of the vote or gain 40 percent with a 10-point margin over their nearest rival), Cristina’s overall popularity remains high, especially with her approval rating at 61 percent. This is far ahead that of any other presidential candidate, or coalition standard bearer. However, the possibility of a run-off election should not be particularly disconcerting to the Kirchners, especially since no opposition candidate comes across as a plausible and compelling alternative. It also needs to be recalled that in 2005 Cristina was overwhelmingly elected senator and that her Buenos Aires province contains 40 percent of the nation’s entire electorate. Given such data, Cristina should win the race handily, even with a shrinking number of votes coming from the other regions of Argentina.

The current residents of La Casa Rosada are well aware of their current upper-hand in the race, as evidenced by their not even bothering with a public statement or an appearance after the initial announcement of Cristina’s candidacy was made. Interestingly enough, the opposition candidates have not been very outspoken in their own campaigns and have not made much commentary on Cristina’s performance or other aspects of her candidacy either. As former Argentine OAS official Ricardo Gjivoje told COHA in an interview, “there is a campaign without a campaign.” The main opposition candidate, former Minister of Economy Roberto Lavagna, has not been very vocal in his desire for the nation’s top job, and neither has third place presidential candidate, National Deputy Elisa Carrio. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Lavagna of the coalition Una Nación Avanzada (UNA) and Carrio of the center-left group ARI, have only garnered the support of 11.9 percent and 10.6 percent of the Argentine populace, respectively, according to recent polls. According to Gjivoje, the opposition is not a problem for Cristina’s bid because it is so split, leaving it unable to maintain a forceful role.

In actuality, the Kirchner camp has not needed to tout its aims very explicitly to gain public support and it is approaching Cristina’s campaign with an impressive amount of complacency since, in effect, they already have captured the majority vote. This was evidenced by her choice not to officially launch her campaign until July 19, when a massive rally was held in her native city of La Plata, the capital of the Buenos Aires province. Now, all that will shortly matter is the pomp and circumstance of a Cristina presidency, which is sure to follow, even though a minority of Argentines believes that she as the government’s highest office-holder is not the best option, by far, for the Argentine population.