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Argentina: Adios Mr. Kirchner

Though plagued by heart trouble, former president Néstor Kirchner’s death Wednesday (October 27) caught Argentines and foreign observers by surprise. As his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was serving out the remainder of her four-year term as president, he was positioning himself to run again next October. Theoretically, she would bide her time to run ...

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Though plagued by heart trouble, former president Néstor Kirchner's death Wednesday (October 27) caught Argentines and foreign observers by surprise. As his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was serving out the remainder of her four-year term as president, he was positioning himself to run again next October. Theoretically, she would bide her time to run once more after he left office in 2015, thus keeping the administration of South America's second largest country in family hands.

Now such a scheme -- if ever plausible -- is in disarray. Besides who might prevail in the 2011 elections, the question is whether Néstor Kirchner's departure marks a turning point. Will Argentines cling to the model of powerful paternalistic presidencies that Kirchner and populist role model Juan Perón represented, or opt for a more institutional, accountable type of government? For the moment, the latter does not seem to be a viable option.

For one thing, Kirchner gained popularity by bringing Argentina back from a crisis that impacted a lot of people. Taking over from interim President Eduardo Duhalde in 2003, his confrontational leadership style guided Argentina out of an economic collapse that had devastated the ranks of its middle class. Kirchner angered foreign creditors by paying pennies on the dollar for Argentina's debts. Yet he put the economy on a growth track, aided by the inspired retention of economy minister Roberto Lavagna, a devalued peso, and rising commodity prices.

Though plagued by heart trouble, former president Néstor Kirchner’s death Wednesday (October 27) caught Argentines and foreign observers by surprise. As his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was serving out the remainder of her four-year term as president, he was positioning himself to run again next October. Theoretically, she would bide her time to run once more after he left office in 2015, thus keeping the administration of South America’s second largest country in family hands.

Now such a scheme — if ever plausible — is in disarray. Besides who might prevail in the 2011 elections, the question is whether Néstor Kirchner’s departure marks a turning point. Will Argentines cling to the model of powerful paternalistic presidencies that Kirchner and populist role model Juan Perón represented, or opt for a more institutional, accountable type of government? For the moment, the latter does not seem to be a viable option.

For one thing, Kirchner gained popularity by bringing Argentina back from a crisis that impacted a lot of people. Taking over from interim President Eduardo Duhalde in 2003, his confrontational leadership style guided Argentina out of an economic collapse that had devastated the ranks of its middle class. Kirchner angered foreign creditors by paying pennies on the dollar for Argentina’s debts. Yet he put the economy on a growth track, aided by the inspired retention of economy minister Roberto Lavagna, a devalued peso, and rising commodity prices.

He elevated concerns for human rights in pursuing unresolved cases from the era of Argentina’s military dictatorship. And when his wife was elected to succeed him as president, he helped her make difficult policy decisions and maintain unity within his party’s normally unruly coalition.

Despite factions and splits, Kirchner’s peronist Justicialist party is alive and well. Its patronage system of national and provincial party chiefs, union bosses, and special interest groups is the dominant political archetype. Welfare payments to the unemployed, some of it reportedly distributed through groups linked to the militant piqueteros movement, helped assure political loyalty among the poor, even as it encouraged a culture of corruption and favor trafficking.

Not all that Kirchner did was popular, however. Following Argentina’s financial recovery, he ditched his economy minister and implemented policies spurring inflation that currently outstrips Argentina’s 9 percent growth rate. Both Kirchners frequently circumvented lawmakers and ruled by decree. In 2008, they aggravated farmers with plans to raise taxes on grain exports and had to back off after months of protests. Subsequently, agricultural producers began working with lawmakers to rollback existing tariffs — which got easier when the Kirchners lost their majority in congress.

Currently in lame duck status, re-election prospects for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner depend on her ability to show she can govern on her own. If she departs very much from her husband’s themes, she may lose the backing of her party’s faithful. Also, voters will be looking to see if she can run her coalition or if the party and union bosses have the upper hand. Whether or not she succeeds in presenting a fresh vision of the future, the campaign may still be about her husband’s legacy.

Potential rival candidates have a related problem. Playing off Néstor’s more unpopular decisions, they might have claimed to be the "anti-Kirchner." That’s almost irrelevant now. They too will need to propose a compelling vision. Only the conservative Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri is likely to offer much in the way toward a more accountable, commerce-friendly government. However, he has no national party to help him campaign.

No doubt, Nestor Kirchner’s departure creates an opening for a new direction and tone in Argentine politics. It could also be an opportunity for the United States to develop closer ties with Argentina, strained as relations had been under the Kirchners, who were chummy with Venezuelan populist Hugo Chávez. (That said, below the presidential level, ties remained cordial and productive.) Still, it is unclear whether prospective candidates, party leaders, or the electorate are ready for a different discourse.

While Néstor Kirchner may have overplayed his "father knows best" routine, he wielded a deft hand in a crisis and left intact a potent political machine. Maybe Argentines may want less corruption, fewer burdensome taxes, and more say in their government’s policies. But achieving that may depend more on an evolution in thinking than a revolution at the ballot box.

Stephen Johnson is a senior advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute. He was the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs from 2007 to 2009.

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