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Special 072307 Szusterman

Monday, July 23, 2007

Argentina’s Kirchner Model: King & Queen Penguin

By Celia Szusterman

·         The "first lady" of Argentina, Cristina Kirchner, is preparing to launch a campaign to succeed her husband Néstor as president. This is less a story of Evita Perón or Hillary Clinton than a political fix by illiberal architects of a failed model of governance, says Celia Szusterman.

Argentina's president, Néstor 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. Fernández 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 favor 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, Néstor 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.

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-center 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 misdemeanor (like Argentina's Carlos Menem), and/or harried by rivals, the media and popular mobilization. The setbacks faced by Kirchner's favored 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 realization 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 presiden