Ultimately, the forecasts turned out to be true. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, wife of Argentine president Néstor Kirchner, will become president after winning by a wide margin in the first round of elections on October 28. Fernández has made history. Never before in Argentina has a woman been elected chief of state. It’s also the first time that a woman in Argentina or anywhere else has succeeded her husband in that office as the result of the electoral process.
Trained as an attorney, Fernández, the mother of two sons, has been a senator from Buenos Aires. Last Sunday, she was elected president with 44.86% of the vote, a margin of more than 20% over Elisa Carrió, a Social Christian. In Argentina, only one woman has ever before become president, the widow of Juan Domingo Perón. His third wife, Isabelita Perón, succeeded Perón in that position from 1974 to 1976.
After the results became known, Fernández told a crowd at a Buenos Aires hotel that she feels a double responsibility, both for the president and for her sex. Fernández, a candidate of the Peronista FPV party (Front for Victory), thanked her husband, noting that “with his successes and mistakes, he has shown that he is a man who is deeply committed to his country and his people.”
Néstor Kirchner and his wife will exchange Argentina’s political documents beginning on December 10. Fernández will go from being the country’s First Lady to being president. Her husband will go from being president to “presidential spouse.” Several factors are involved in this unusual turn of events. According to Carlos Malamud, chief Latin American researcher at the Real Instituto Elcano, “It was the decision of the president alone. He chose her and designated her to succeed him.” Malamud makes the usual comparisons between Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Hillary Clinton. He says that although both women are lawyers and wives of presidents as well as senators, Clinton — unlike Fernández — took her senatorial post after her husband ceased to be president. Second, Fernández was tapped to be the presidential candidate when her husband was still president. Finally, he notes, “In order to get elected, Hillary needs to undergo a tough process of primaries, which is something that doesn’t happen here.”
Nevertheless, Juan Carlos Martínez Lázaro, professor at the Instituto de Empresa (IE) business school in Spain, believes that both women are alike in that “they have both shown they can act on their own when it comes to political issues.” Regarding Fernández, he says, “She is not a woman who is a decoration. She’s not there just because her husband decided to put her there.”
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner also lives in the shadow of another great figure in Argentine political history — actress and politician Eva Duarte, better known as “Evita”. Comparisons with Evita, the second wife of Juan Domingo Perón, captured the attention of the poor and the working class, and helped bring out the female vote. Evita didn’t manage to reach the vice presidency nor was that her desire. She suffered from cancer and Perón himself prevented her from doing that. However, Evita became a myth.
Both women share a striking physical appearance and a strong personality. Raúl Aragón, professor and director of the public opinion researcher center at UAI, the Interamerican Open University, defines Fernández, 54, as “a sort of post-modern Evita. She has substituted ‘the people’ for the ‘shirtless’ ones [of Evita’s era]. She has class. It’s as if she wanted to sing beyond her register; she forces the cords and loses the most subtle tones.”
According to Martínez Lázaro, Fernández’ skill at exploiting the currents of populism comes from Peronism and it has vaulted her into the presidency. Nevertheless, her taste for fashion, make-up and populist speechmaking are not the only factors that have helped her become the next president. The key has been her role in overcoming the economic crisis that hit Argentina between 2001 and 2002. “The agony that existed four or five years ago no longer exists,” says Malamud. “Four years ago, poverty, social inequality and jobs were the people’s biggest preoccupations. Now they worry most about corruption, public insecurity and political transparency.”
Kirchner gets credit for the economic recovery. “It could not be any other way,” Malamud says, “because he is identified as the national leader, even more so than Lavagna, the former economics minister who was the real force behind the recovery. Lavagna was also one of the presidential candidates. Lavagna’s proximity to Kirchner hurt him in the elections. “His proposal to raise the value of Argentina’s currency wound up losing credibility among a good part of the electorate. The person who benefited most directly was Elisa Carrió.”
On the other hand, Malamud says, the opposition to Fernández was divided and unable to get people excited about its proposals. This helped strengthen Fernández’ candidacy. According to Malamud, the people saw her as the embodiment and continuation of power. But if 45% of voters opted for this continuity, why didn’t they propose that Néstor Kirchner himself be reelected? According to Malamud, Kirchner’s believed that whenever an Argentine president is re-elected, things eventually turn out badly. If he decided to present himself as a candidate, his political capital would soon be destroyed. “The best way to avoid that was to present his own candidate who could win and continue his work — with him in the second spot. And since this is a society focused on married life, and their marriage was working out, he focused on that formula.”
Malamud believes that there will be little difference between the management styles of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner. Fernández’ tour of Latin America, the U.S. and Europe before the elections made people think that the future president will have more of an international vocation than her husband has. Martínez Lázaro, who was in Spain during Fernández’ visit to that country, believes that she moves better in international settings than her husband, despite the fact that international politics “has never interested her or been something that she exploited.”
For Malamud, Fernández’ taste for travel does not translate into any changes in Argentine foreign policy. He notes that she was very blunt in her comments to the press a few days before the elections when she said she was going to try to maintain good relations with both the United States and Venezuela, but added, “That is going to be more and more difficult.” As Malamud puts it: “Her foreign tour was marked more by official receptions than by any serious intention to change her country’s foreign policy.”
A Flagging Economic Rebound?
Argentina has clearly emerged from the hole that it fell into in 2001. According to Martínez Lazaro, Fernández knows how to capitalize on the economic boom that is obvious in the country. The economic figures are very optimistic. INDEC, the national institute for statistics and census, estimates that the GDP will grow by 8.7% during the second quarter of 2007 compared with the same period last year. Since the crisis, the unemployment rate has fallen by about ten points and it is currently at about 8.5%. The poverty rate has also been drastically reduced, from 50% then to slightly more than 25% of the population today.
Despite such numbers, Martínez Lázaro believes that we are seeing a clear “rebound effect” after the country suffered such a deep drop in economic activity. He compares this process with throwing a ball on the ground: “The harder you throw a ball, the stronger the bounce. But we realize from the outset that the ball bounces a lot and that the second bounce will be smaller and the third even smaller. This rebound is running out of steam.” He notes that Argentina managed to get out of the crisis and grow at a high rate in recent years because of the enormous devaluation of the Argentina peso.
In addition, the primary products that Argentina exports have higher prices now. “The Argentine peso used to have parity with the dollar, and when this parity was eliminated, the peso suffered a devaluation of about 300%. This extremely strong devaluation led to a very high volume of exports; foreign markets were the ones who led this recovery,” he comments. Add to this the fact that prices for soy beans, for example, are at their historic highs amid growing demand, especially from countries in Asia.
Despite the fact that the IMF forecasts growth of more than 7.5% for Argentina this year, Martínez Lazaro believes that important imbalances are cropping up. Argentina, he says, “has an inflation rate that is close to double digits. We now see the impact of the country’s devaluation and how this has been importing inflation for all these years as a result of the low value of the peso.” Official data places the cumulative inflation rate (from January to September 2007) at 5.8%. However, the IMF estimates that at the end of this year, it could reach 9.5%. This lack of competitiveness, says Martínez Lázaro, “will wind up taking a toll.” With regard to inflation, he suggests that INDEC needs to be revived because it has totally lost prestige. The media, the opposition and some specialists are accusing the government of intervening in this supposedly independent organization in order to keep inflation below double digits.
In addition, suggests Malamud, the Argentine government will have to face the energy crisis. To do that, it will have to attract new foreign investment. Before that takes place, he says, “they will have to settle their debt with the Club of Paris (19 creditor countries), which amounts to more than $6 billion and provide guarantees of legal security [to foreign investors].” This debt has become a problem for the Argentine economy because it prevents potential European investors from borrowing money to do business in Argentina. International investors, adds Martínez Lázaro, “have not trusted the Kirchner government; a lot has to change if investors are to regain their confidence in Argentina.”
He adds that the disproportionate level of public spending during this election year might lead to higher deficits, which are one of the Achilles heels of Argentina’s economy. “In recent years, Argentina has accumulated a surplus in its current account as a result of the export bonanza. However, this surplus is getting smaller because the bonanza has led to an increase in imports.”
Despite there concerns, however, many observers believe that Fernández represents continuity for Argentina. “The big surprise would be if there weren’t any [continuity],” says Martínez Lázaro. Fernández defines her model as “the accumulation of growth with social inclusion.” This makes people think that there will be a significant emphasis on social spending. However, he notes, these perpetual subsidies mean “bread for today but hunger tomorrow.”
Beyond the realm of economics, the new government will have to solve other problems, adds Malamud. These issues include public insecurity, corruption, and the need to rebuild Argentina’s democratic institutions.