Volume 10 ● 2008—Latin America Turns Left
From Néstor to Cristina: Argentina and the Kirchners
On 28 October 2007, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner became the first woman to be directly elected president of Argentina.1 On 10 December 2007, she received the presidential sash from her husband, President Néstor Kirchner, who had governed the country since 25 May 2003.
Upon assuming office, Cristina Kirchner enjoyed considerable public support and there was widespread optimism that her administration would work to improve the functioning of Argentina’s democratic institutions, which had suffered some decay during the four-and-a-half-year presidency of Néstor Kirchner. At the same time, she faced several looming problems, ranging from rising inflation to a decelerating economy.
In this article, we discuss what Cristina Kirchner’s presidency means for Argentina and examine the prospects for the remainder of her four-year term in office. We begin with a brief survey of recent Argentine democratic history.
After the Dictatorship
On 10 December 1983, President Raúl Alfonsín of the Radical Civic Union (UCR) assumed office, marking the official end of the darkest period in Argentina’s political history, the 1976–83 military dictatorship known as the Proceso (Process of National Reorganisation). While President Alfonsín’s first four years in office were relatively successful, the final two years witnessed economic decline, hyperinflation, and growing social unrest, culminating in Alfonsín’s resignation in July 1989 (five months prior to the official end of his mandate). Alfonsín was replaced by incoming president, Carlos Menem of the Justicialist Party, a Peronist political party. In May 1989, Menem had been elected president in the last Argentine presidential election to employ an electoral college (leaving the United States as the world’s only presidential democracy to continue to use this archaic electoral method).
When President Menem assumed office, Argentina was in the midst of an economic meltdown, with a monthly inflation rate of approximately 200 per cent, a shrinking economy, and rising levels of poverty. Immediately upon taking control in July, Menem eschewed the largely populist policy proposals he had made during his election campaign, and in direct contrast adopted a neo-liberal reform programme designed to cut inflation, restore economic growth, and reduce poverty. Menem’s audacious changes were initially quite successful, paving the way for a 1994 Constituent Assembly that amended the Argentine constitution to allow for immediate presidential re-election, enabling a president to serve for two consecutive terms. Other reforms included the reduction of the presidential term-length from six to four years.
In 1995, Menem was re-elected president by a wide margin. This election saw the rise of the “Front for a Country in Solidarity” (FREPASO), a new political party composed of dissident Peronists and Radicals as well as members of several minor parties. At the same time, the UCR, the traditional counterweight to the Justicialist Party, saw its electoral support shrink in the face of the competition represented by FREPASO. Public support for Menem declined throughout his final term, with middle-class discomfort at perceived corruption in his administration and at his seeming disrespect for democratic institutions fuelling the prospects for an opposition victory in 1999.
In October 1999, an alliance of the hundred-year-old UCR with the upstart FREPASO easily defeated the Justicialist Party in presidential and legislative elections. Fernando de la Rúa of the UCR was elected president while FREPASO leader Carlos “Chacho” Álvarez was elected vice-president. High public expectations of this new governmental alliance were quickly dashed as the de la Rúa administration confronted growing public debt problems (largely inherited from the Menem era) and internal difficulties including de la Rúa’s indecisiveness and reluctance to consult and the discomfort of many FREPASO politicians at having to take responsibility for governance (in contrast to their preference for the easier role of members of a feckless opposition party).2 By December 2001, the Argentine economy was in tatters, the UCR–FREPASO alliance had disintegrated, and social unrest was on the rise. In response to these problems, in particular the growing violence and riots in metropolitan Buenos Aires, President de la Rúa resigned on 21 December.
After a series of two acting presidents (Ramón Puerta, 21–3 December, and Eduardo Camaño, 31 December–2 January) and one interim president (Adolfo Rodríguez Saá, 23–31 December), on 2 January 2002 Eduardo Duhalde was appointed interim president by the Legislative Assembly and immediately assumed office. Duhalde had been the Justicialist Party candidate in the 1999 presidential election, in which he was defeated by de la Rúa. As president, Duhalde immediately began to work to stabilise the country, and by the end of 2002 had effectively put Argentina on a track of gradual recovery.
Once the situation had been stabilised, and partly in reaction to the death of two protesters at the hands of riot police, Duhalde opted to call presidential elections in April 2003, six months ahead of schedule. Since Duhalde’s nemesis, Carlos Menem (who as president in 1999 had worked to sabotage Duhalde’s 1999 presidential bid), immediately declared his candidacy, Duhalde began to search for a Peronist candidate who would be able to defeat Menem. After negotiations, Duhalde eventually decided to throw his weight behind Néstor Kirchner, governor since 1991 of the remote and sparsely populated Patagonian province of Santa Cruz. As it appeared Menem might be victorious in a Peronist primary election to choose the Justicialist Party’s candidate, Duhalde, taking advantage of his control over the party’s official machinery, successfully manoeuvred to allow multiple Peronist candidates to compete in the general election: Néstor Kirchner, Carlos Menem, and Adolfo Rodríguez Saá.
In the 23 April presidential elections, Menem finished first with 24.5 per cent of the popular vote, followed by Kirchner with 22.2 per cent, and by the former Radicals Ricardo López Murphy and Elisa Carrió with 16.4 per cent and 14.1 per cent respectively (Rodríguez Saá also won 14.1 per cent). Since no candidate won more than 45 per cent of the vote (or won at least 40 per cent and was 10 per cent ahead of the second-place finisher), in accordance with the Argentine constitution, a runoff was scheduled for 18 May between Menem and Kirchner. Aware that he would almost certainly lose the runoff, and wishing to deny Kirchner the benefits of a substantial second-round victory mandate, on 13 May Menem withdrew from the race, and on 25 May, Néstor Kirchner assumed the presidency.
Néstor Kirchner’s Presidency
Argentina’s economic recovery, initiated during the Duhalde presidency, blossomed under the leadership of President Kirchner. Aided by considerable surplus domestic capacity, by rising global commodity prices (especially for Argentina’s principal export, soya beans and soya-based products, but also for wheat, corn, beef, minerals and oil), and by an undervalued peso, the country enjoyed robust rates of economic growth. Excess industrial and labour capacity as well as selective government price controls allowed Argentina to avoid any serious problems with inflation during the first three years of the Kirchner presidency.
In 2005, Kirchner, chafing at the continued political influence exercised by his former mentor, Eduardo Duhalde, threw down a gauntlet in the latter’s power-base, the province of Buenos Aires (which contains 38 per cent of Argentina’s population and accounts for 35 per cent of its gross domestic product). Duhalde and Kirchner supporters throughout the province separated into two camps for mid-term elections in which national senators, national deputies, provincial senators, provincial deputies, and municipal councillors would be chosen. The key battle in the 23 October elections was the senatorial contest between President Kirchner’s wife, Cristina Fernández, and Duhalde’s wife, Hilda “Chiche” González de Duhalde. In the end, the monetary and material resources that President Kirchner was able to deploy, as well as Cristina Fernández’s superior campaign, resulted in a decisive victory for the Kirchner camp over the Duhalde camp, with Cristina Fernández gaining 46 per cent of the vote to Chiche Duhalde’s 20 per cent.
Néstor Kirchner’s proxy victory over Eduardo Duhalde in 2005 cemented his absolute control over the Justicialist Party throughout the country, and by extension over the Argentine political system given the large majorities held by the party in the national Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. By contrast, the political opposition was highly fragmented and more concerned with internal squabbles or local concerns than with providing a credible alternative national government to Kirchner and his Justicialist Party.
Although Kirchner enjoyed near-absolute control over the political system, a growing economy, and high public-opinion ratings as he entered the final year of his term in 2007, some grey clouds were beginning to appear on the horizon.
First, in early 2007, faced with rising inflation rates, and under the broad direction of Kirchner confidant Guillermo Moreno, the government began to manipulate official economic data via statistical tricks, targeted price controls, threats of reprisals against private companies, and outright falsification. Thus, while Argentina’s official inflation rate for 2007 was 9 per cent, the actual rate was estimated by independent economists to be approximately 25 per cent.
Second, active government intervention in the economy via price controls, direct subsidies to private companies, and pressure to encourage selected (almost exclusively foreign) companies to sell their holdings to local Argentine business people with strong ties to the government had by 2007 seriously reduced private-sector confidence in the Argentine economy.
Third, the combination of price controls, high tax rates on exports, and an insecure legal environment resulted in growing energy shortages, with natural gas and electricity production insufficient to meet Argentina’s increasing demand. The end product of the rising inflation, extensive government intervention in the economy, legal insecurity, and energy shortages was limited foreign and domestic investment—investment that was sorely needed if Argentina was to maintain its impressive rates of growth in 2008 and beyond.
Cristina Takes Power
Despite the above-mentioned problems, when President Kirchner decided in July 2007 that he would not stand for re-election, and that his candidate would be his wife, Senator Cristina Fernández, it was a foregone conclusion that she would be Argentina’s next president. In the 28 October general elections Cristina Kirchner faced a divided and weak opposition while at the same time benefiting from her and her husband’s high public-approval ratings, continued economic growth, and ample monetary and material resources to finance her campaign.
Cristina Kirchner’s three principal opponents on 28 October were Elisa Carrió, Roberto Lavagna, and Alberto Rodríguez Saá, brother of Argentina’s former interim president, Adolfo. Each of the three represented distinct components of the political opposition to the Kirchners. Carrió enjoyed strong support among the anti-Peronist middle class in Argentina’s urban centres; Lavagna (a Peronist and minister of the economy from 2002 until November 2005 when he was fired by President Kirchner following the sweeping success of Kirchner-backed candidates in the 2005 midterm elections) was backed by the official wing of the UCR and by most of the small coterie of dissident/anti-Kirchner Peronists; Rodríguez Saá, the Peronist governor of the province of San Luis, relied chiefly on the support of the remainder of the dissident/anti-Kirchner Peronists.
On 28 October, Cristina Kirchner was comfortably elected president of Argentina with 45.3 per cent of the popular vote. She was the winner in twenty-one of the country’s twenty-four provinces. Carrió finished a distant second with 23 per cent. Lavagna came in third with 16.9 per cent. Rodríguez Saá finished a distant fourth (7.6 per cent), winning only in his home province of San Luis (where, indicative of his and his brother’s near-complete dominance of San Luis, he won 68 per cent of the vote while Cristina Kirchner came in second with 12 per cent).
Cristina Kirchner’s presidential election victory in 2007 was the capstone of her thirty-year political career. She had married Néstor Kirchner in 1975 in La Plata, capital city of the province of Buenos Aires, where both were attending law school and were active in the National University of La Plata’s Peronist movement. Following the 1976 military coup, they moved to Néstor Kirchner’s native province of Santa Cruz.
With the return of democracy in 1983, the couple became involved in Santa Cruz electoral politics. Cristina Kirchner’s political activity increased with her husband’s election as mayor of the Santa Cruz capital, Río Gallegos, in 1987. In 1989, she was elected as a provincial deputy (and was re-elected in 1993). In 1991, she became the First Lady of Santa Cruz following Néstor Kirchner’s election as governor for the first of three four-year terms (1991–5, 1995–9, 1999–2003).
In 1995, she was elected to the post of national senator, thereby beginning a twelve-year stay in Congress (representing the province of Santa Cruz from 1995 to 2005, and the province of Buenos Aires from 2005 to 2007). Two years later, in 1997, she was elected to the position of national deputy.
During her time in Congress, Cristina Kirchner was one of the most vocal Peronist critics of the Menem administration, and unlike most other Justicialist Party senators and deputies, frequently voted against major legislative initiatives promoted by President Menem. In 2001, she was once again elected to the position of senator, and in 2003 also became First Lady of Argentina when Néstor Kirchner assumed office as president. In 2005, as previously mentioned, she obtained a crucial victory in the province of Buenos Aires, being elected its senator for a six-year term.
End of the Honeymoon
President Cristina Kirchner assumed office on 10 December 2007 with high approval ratings, a large and disciplined majority in both the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, the support of twenty of Argentina’s twenty-four governors, and an iron control (in concert with her political partner/husband, Néstor Kirchner) of the Justicialist Party. Her honeymoon period in office was, however, to be short-lived.
On 11 March 2008, Kirchner’s government modified via an administrative resolution tax rates and regulations governing Argentina’s principal export crop (soya beans and soya-related products) as well as exports of sunflower products. This modification, in particular a dramatic increase in export taxes and the placing of a virtual ceiling on future profits, was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the country’s agricultural sector, which had been growing increasingly resentful of what it viewed as excessive taxation, price controls, and arbitrary state interference in its business practices. Argentina’s disparate agricultural producers, ranging from large landowners and multinational corporations to small-scale farmers, joined together with unprecedented unity to oppose national government policy. Farming associations imposed road blocks and began a nationwide lockout in an attempt to force the government to rescind the new taxation scheme.
As the four month (March–July) conflict between the agricultural sector and the Kirchner administration evolved, several important groups threw their weight behind the farmers. One was the rural and urban population in Argentina’s principal agricultural-producing provinces (i.e., Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Santa Fe, Entre Ríos, La Pampa, Chaco, and Santiago del Estero). This population group, while not directly involved in agricultural production, nevertheless indirectly depends on it for its livelihood. This segment of the population (especially in the countryside and in small and medium-sized towns) was also mobilised by the general argument made by the farmers that while it pays copious taxes to the national government, an insufficient amount of this money makes it back to agricultural areas in the form of state expenditure on schools, roads, healthcare, etc.
Others who supported the farmers were large swathes of the middle and upper classes in Argentina’s major cities that saw the agricultural protest as a means of expressing their own dissatisfaction with Cristina Kirchner’s administration. They were joined by the principal opposition political parties, which discovered in the farmers’ demands an issue that allowed them to boost their standing with the general electorate, and thus enthusiastically joined the campaign to rescind the tax resolution. Lastly, a significant minority of Peronists (and government-aligned non-Peronists, such as pro-Kirchner Radicals known as “K Radicals”) from the main agricultural provinces, when forced to choose between their loyalty to the government and their loyalty to their constituents, decided to back the latter.
The agricultural protest initially featured hundreds of road blocks by farmers across the country as well as a refusal to sell or ship foodstuffs, causing both food shortages in towns and a severe drop in agricultural exports, which in turn resulted in less tax revenue for the government. After enduring three months of protests, a notable slowdown in economic activity, increasing divisions in the governing party/alliance, and a sharp decline in her approval ratings, President Kirchner temporarily defused the conflict in the middle of June by agreeing to send the tax resolution to Congress for approval in the form of a law.
On 5 July, following two weeks of debate and vigorous lobbying by both the agricultural organisations and the government, the Chamber of Deputies approved the bill containing the key components of the tax resolution in a very close vote, 129 to 122. Fifteen members of the governing Justicialist Party joined the opposition in voting against the measure, that is against the government—a rare occurrence in Argentina’s disciplined legislative environment. Most of these fifteen dissenting deputies came from the chief agricultural provinces, where a substantial majority of the population opposed the bill. Thus, three of the five Justicialist Party deputies from the province of Entre Ríos voted against the measure, as did three of the six Justicialist Party deputies from the province of Córdoba. Moreover, of the ten Kirchner-allied K-Radicals, four voted against the government.
The bill then moved to the Senate, the government imposing on its senators the strict command that absolutely no changes be made to the version of the bill that was approved in the Chamber. Modifications to the bill would have required it to be returned to the Chamber for a new vote, which the government wished to avoid because of the intensive lobbying, pressure, scrutiny, and signal of government weakness that that would entail.
After a marathon legislative session, the bill finally came to a formal vote in the early hours of 17 July: thirty-six senators voted to approve it and thirty-six voted against it. Among the senators voting against were nine Peronists who were (at least until June) considered to be supporters of the government. In the case of tied votes in the Argentine Senate, the deadlock is broken by the vice-president (who is president of the Senate). Argentina’s vice-president, Julio Cobos, was the leader of the K-Radicals (and a former UCR governor of the province of Mendoza between 2003 and 2007). After a short break to deliberate, Cobos returned to the Senate floor and voted against the bill (and indirectly against his president), resulting in a crushing defeat for the Kirchner government.
This Senate defeat represented the first important political setback for Néstor and Cristina Kirchner in their five years in power. The government that emerged at the end of the political conflict with the agricultural sector was much weaker than the one that had entered into it on 11 March. During this four-month period, President Kirchner saw her public-approval ratings plummet, her (and her husband’s) control over Peronism weakened (with several prominent Peronists now actively challenging her administration), and her relationship with the vice-president irrevocably damaged.
Besides these political problems, Kirchner also had to contend with a multitude of serious economic difficulties. These included an annual inflation rate approaching 30 per cent; a slowdown in economic growth; a reduction in real tax revenues and a consequent shrinking of the government’s fiscal surplus; a growing demand for state subsidies to maintain artificially low prices for public utilities, transportation, fuel, and food; demands for salary rises for state workers and pension increases for retirees; and mounting debt payments.
Cristina at the Crossroads
President Kirchner has experienced a difficult first few months in office. The high public-approval ratings, abundant fiscal resources, and absolute dominance over the Peronist movement (and over the broader political system) that she enjoyed in December 2007 had vanished by July 2008. The rebellion in Peronist ranks and the farmers’ success in defeating her proposed tax rises have emboldened opposition in industry, the media, and organised labour.
The Kirchners’ governance style has to date been one that has eschewed dialogue and consensus in favour of confrontation and diktat. This style worked very well during Néstor Kirchner’s twelve years as governor of Santa Cruz and during his five-and-a-half years as president given his government’s dominance of the political system, a dominance that was primarily the result of his popularity and the considerable financial and material resources at his disposal.
However, in the current context of growing Peronist political dissent, increasingly limited government resources, and low presidential approval ratings, this governance style is not nearly as effective as it once was. Cristina Kirchner is thus at a crossroads. If she attempts to maintain the principal policies and modus operandi that characterised her husband’s presidency, the result is likely to be political failure. She will either spend most of the remainder of her mandate as an ineffectual leader governing in increasingly difficult circumstances, or—the worst-case scenario—fail even to make it to the end of her four-year term in December 2011. If, however, President Kirchner makes the difficult decision to adopt a new set of public policies and a more consensual and open style of governance, there is still hope that she can successfully navigate the economic and political crises that are beginning to appear on the Argentine horizon.
1. Argentina’s first female president was Isabel Martínez de Perón, who, as vice-president, assumed office on 1 July 1974 following the death of her husband, then-president Juan Domingo Perón. She was removed from power on 24 March 1976 in a military coup.
2. Among FREPASO’s discontented was Vice-President Álvarez, who, upset by his lack of influence in government decisions, resigned in October 2000, a mere ten months after he had assumed office.