Elections leave Argentina’s Kirchner a lame duck

By Eurasia Group analyst Daniel Kerner Argentina has seen better days. Following a dramatic political and economic crisis in late 2001 and the largest sovereign default in recent economic history, Argentina enjoyed a remarkable economic recovery over the next several years. Under President Nestor Kirchner (2003-2007), a favorable international environment helped boost the country’s economy ...

By , the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media.
584176_090630_kirchner2.jpg
584176_090630_kirchner2.jpg

By Eurasia Group analyst Daniel Kerner

Argentina has seen better days.

By Eurasia Group analyst Daniel Kerner

Argentina has seen better days.

Following a dramatic political and economic crisis in late 2001 and the largest sovereign default in recent economic history, Argentina enjoyed a remarkable economic recovery over the next several years. Under President Nestor Kirchner (2003-2007), a favorable international environment helped boost the country’s economy at a record pace, enabling him to consolidate power and to become one of the most popular and successful presidents in Argentine history. His popularity (approval ratings of close to 70 percent for most of his mandate) allowed him to transfer political power to his wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who was elected president by a comfortable margin in October 2007.

But the trouble began even before Nestor Kirchner stepped aside. Despite his political success, his government’s reluctance to address rising inflation, unpaid external debt and energy shortages began to raise doubts over the sustainability of Argentina’s growth. Inflation began to climb in 2005. The government responded with expansionary fiscal and monetary policies, manipulated inflation statistics, and heavy and sustained pressure on the private sector to keep prices low. Hopes that the Fernandez de Kirchner administration would more openly address these problems were quickly dashed.

But it was last year’s four-month conflict with the farming sector over export taxes that delivered the heaviest blow to the Kirchners’ popularity. The conflict began after the government sharply raised taxes on soybean exports and refused to reduce them despite massive protests. The taxes were repealed only after the senate voted against the government’s proposal. The government’s decision to shore up its fiscal position by nationalizing local pension funds further undermined confidence in both the government and in Argentina’s economic prospects.

But it was last weekend’s election results that finally closed the door on the Kirchner era in Argentine politics. Months ago, the Kirchners knew they had a fight on their hands. Afraid a bad economy would only get worse, the government surprised many observers by pushing forward the date of mid-term elections from October to June. Aware that even the earlier elections would leave them at a disadvantage in key electoral districts, the Kirchners upped the stakes. Nestor Kirchner himself announced that he would seek a lower house seat representing the province of Buenos Aires.

He lost. And the government lost its majority in both houses of congress. In fact, government candidates fell in most of the country’s largest electoral districts, including the Capital, Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Entre Rios, Mendoza and Santa Fe.

The Kirchners were hoping to maintain what was left of their grip on the Peronist Party and to dominate the political agenda heading into the next presidential election in 2011. Instead, the sun rose Monday morning on a new set of opposition leaders, like Vice President Julio Cobos, Senator Carlos Reutemann, and Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri, who are well positioned to challenge for the presidency in two years. The country’s most powerful politician, Nestor Kirchner, resigned Monday as leader of the Peronist Party. Though two years remain in her presidency, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has become a lame duck.

The key economic policy question is whether the Kirchners, who have refused to negotiate or compromise with rivals both inside and outside the Peronist Party can navigate the newly treacherous political waters.

If so, they’ll have to fundamentally shift the way they’ve done business for the past six years. That’s why it probably won’t happen — and why Argentina’s political and economic forecast will remain mostly cloudy until a new president is elected in 2011.

CLAUDIO SANTANA/AFP/Getty Images

Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer

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