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Inside Latin America


An End to Kirchnerism in Argentina as the Tango Nation Faces Uncertainty

July 27th 2009

Latin American Topics - Kirchners
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina has now been in office one year and a half and is facing enormous challenges from within and without. Domestically, her call for national dialogue has been received cautiously by her opponents and the business sector, while her hard-core supporters appear to be flagging.

The Kirchner administration has been accused of corruption and manipulation of economic statistics, as well as putting pressures on both judges and the media. Industrial output dropped by nearly 11 percent this May with respect to the same period in 2008, according to the Argentine Industrial Union – a pro-business group. The annual rate of inflation has now surpassed 15 percent. Swine flu has now caused more than 165 deaths, according to official figures, but could actually be more, while official statistics have been called into question. World-renowned for its range-fed beef, Argentina may actually have to import beef this year because of the current impasse between the government and the private sector. Importing beef is something that just a short time ago would have seemed beyond comprehension.

As far as international affairs are concerned, Argentina appears to be more and more isolated. While its revenue appears to be in freefall, Argentina has no access to international financial markets even while it continues its feud with the International Monetary Fund. Recently, President Barack Obama placed Brazil and Chile at the forefront as examples of countries enjoying good relations with the United States. He failed to mention Argentina.

Even Argentina's principal partner, Brazil, appears to becoming increasingly impatient regarding the barriers Argentina imposes on imports from Brazil. At the summit meeting of the Mercosur countries – which include Argentina, Brazil, and Chile – Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva expressed his “concern” over Argentina's restrictions.

Cristina Kirchner's call for national dialogue on July 9 came just 11 days after the defeat of “Kirchnerism” at polls during the congressional bi-elections. It was then that Kirchnerism – the reign of President Nestor Kirchner followed by wife President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – lost the city of Buenos Aires and the principal provinces of the country. This comes at a time when Argentina is belabored by the most serious outbreak of swine flu in South America. Official figures citing 165 deaths as of July 20 have been questioned by non-government specialists.

Leaders of business groups representing the agricultural and industrial sectors of the economy expressed reservations about President Kirchner’s call for dialogue since, indeed, she has not shown any move towards changing her style of governance. After the June poll, she denied that there had been any manipulation of the economic indexes – something that had already been affirmed by bureaucrats at the Argentine National Institute of Statistics and Census). In addition, she replaced several ministers of government with “Super K” cronies – functionaries who are known for their loyalty to President Kirchner and ex-President Nestor Kirchner: who continues to call the shots for the current government.

In recent days, it has emerged that former Minister of Health Graciela Ocaña had recommended that the June 28 election be postponed out of fear of aggravating the spreading swine flu epidemic. She was ignored. Ocaña resigned just hours after voting ended. There have now been filed legal charges again President Kirchner for negligence in the scheduling of the elections in view of the health crisis ensuing from swine flu. Argentina now has one of the highest rates of swine flu contagion in the world.

Crisis in Honduras

Faced with such a domestic crisis, observers in Argentina are asking why President Kirchner decided to travel to Washington D.C. to attend the assembly of the Organization of American States which was discussing the crisis in Honduras that was precipitated by the ejection of former President Manuel Zelaya and his replacement by President Roberto Micheletti as leader of the Central American republic. She even announced that she would accompany Zelaya on his planned return to Honduras on a jet provided by President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Ultimately, President Kirchner did not travel to Tegucigalpa with Zelaya but met him instead in El Salvador along with President Rafael Correa of Ecuador.

"The sorely wounded democracy in Honduras has no need of Cristina Kirchner. The international community (the United Nations, OAS, and the European Union, among others) is working to find a solution in Tegucigalpa” said José Morales Solá, a well-known columnist in an editorial at La Nación – the most respected daily in Argentina. Morales Solá added “No other coup d’etat, except those that happen so frequently in Africa, has provoked such an international reaction in the last three decades.” Brazilian President Lula da Silva and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet both preferred to let the international institutions to hand the situation in Honduras. But Cristina Kirchner, who is perhaps facing greater domestic challenges than her neighbors, decided to involve herself personally.

President Kirchner’s trip resembled one that her husband Nestor took as president in December 2007, when he participated as witness in a failed mission—organized by Venezuela's President Chavez—to liberate three hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It was then, when power was being transferred to husband to wife that allegations emerged from Miami over the arrest of Venezuelan-American businessman Guido Antonini Wilson who neglected to declare some $800,000 in alleged campaign contributions to the Kirchners from President Chavez of Venezuela.

Is this the end of Kirchnerism?

Their defeat in the congressional polls in June 2009 have put an end to Nestor Kirchner’s plans that were put into effect when he took office in 2003. In six years, Kirchnerism is a spent force having achieved its apogee upon Cristina Kirchner’s arrival in power. The first casualty in their demise was Nestor Kirchner, who relinquished leadership of the Peronist party after having recognized his defeat by the dissident Peronist Francisco de Narváez in a contest for a congressional seat for the province of Buenos Aires, the economic and electoral powerhouse which surrounds the nation’s federal capital district. Kirchner lagged by 2 percent behind De Narváez, a businessman and political neophyte who has emerged as one of the principal chieftains of Argentina.

By analyzing all of the voting districts, Kirchnerism garnered 30 percent of the vote – far less than the 45 percent that Cristina Kirchner achieved in 2007 in order to ride to the Casa Rosada – the “Pink House” that serves as the president’s executive offices. Seen in this light, the Kirchner partners lost 3 million votes in less than 2 years. They didn’t even win in their native province, Santa Cruz.

In December 2009, Kirchner’s allies in Congress will go from 116 congressmen to 96, far less than the quorum of 129 votes needed. Kirchnerism will also lose the majority in the Senate. While governing without a majority in Congress is part of doing business in a democracy, Nestor Kirchner may have been thinking otherwise when he expressed fears that Argentina could return to the chaos of 2001 if his plans for the bi-election were to fail. Elections had been planned for December but were re-scheduled for July in view of growing electoral disenchantment with the Kirchners.  By transforming an ordinary political disagreement into a referendum on his wife’s performance as chief executive, Nestor Kirchner managed to hoist himself and Cristina on his own petard.

Tango on the pampas

The Kirchners might have anticipated their loss. It started in March 2008, when their administration increased the tax on exported grain just at the moment when other countries (such as Brazil) were reducing theirs: other grain-producing countries were incentivizing exports during a global boom. With their ideological approach, the Kirchners made a hash of the objections the agricultural sector had to taxation. By accusing farmers as “coup plotters”, the Kirchners managed to polarize Argentine society.

Another factor in the Kirchners’ decline was the public’s perception that they were lying about the economy. The government claimed that inflation in 2008 rose by only  7.2 percent, an assertion easily dismissed by the public that saw supermarket prices rise by at least three times as much. According to the Argentine National Institute on Economics and Census, industrial production dropped by 1.7 percent in May 2009 with respect to the same month in 2008. However, according to the Argentine Industrial Union (a trade organization) the drop was actually 10.9 percent.

Another nail in the Kirchner coffin is the growing perception that the presidential pair have personally profited from their time in office. They now own two boutique hotels, while their personal coffers have grown from 3.36 million euros to 8.67 million: an increase of 158 percent since Cristina Kirchner’s inauguration. According to La Nación – Argentina’s respected daily – this bonanza is due to the sale of 16 properties in the province of Santa Cruz. With it, they bought a splendid hotel in Calafate, within sight of the splendid Perito Moreno glacier and national park in Patagonia. Cristina also profited from the sale of public properties that she had purchased with the help of a former public official of Calafate. The Kirchners as now facing lawsuits over their Patagonian land dealings.

Argentine voters have shown that they are tired of the Kirchner style of personalism, arrogance and antagonism – especially towards the media – as well as a perception of corruption. Their few press conferences and constant criticisms of the media have become counterproductive and now further isolate the presidential pair who were once compared to Hillary and Bill Clinton. They now may be engaged in a politically fatal tango.

Eduardo Szklarz heads the Cutting Edge Argentina Desk while Martin Barillas is a Cutting Edge Senior Correspondent.

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