The fall of the Kirchnerist empire?

BUENOS AIRES — June 28 was trouble for Argentina's ruling party.

This being a mid-term congressional election, it would seem to have nothing to do with the president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. But with her husband, Nestor Kirchner, running in the key race and leading her party of Peronists in a battle for almost half of the Congress, it was clear that what was at stake was control of the government as a whole.

Analysts, the press and the political leaders themselves were billing the vote as a referendum on Fernandez de Kirchner's presidency. Despite the president's efforts at damage control, that characterization has arguably been borne out in the days following the vote. Many observers think they're watching the fall of the Kirchnerist empire that has controlled Argentine politics since 2003.

Most of the pre-election polls, notoriously unreliable in Argentina, failed to predict the outcome: The Kirchners' coalition, the Justicialist Front for Victory, was most importantly upset in the province of Buenos Aires, the site of the working-class suburbs that have always been the Kirchners' power base. Together with the capital city proper, we're talking about almost half of the electorate here — the ruling party lost the most important races in the country.

The Kirchners were likewise defeated in the other largest provinces: soundly in Cordoba and Mendoza, home of the rebellious vice president who has defected from the president's party while still in the administration; predictably in the breadbasket state of Santa Fe, the nexus of the conflict with farmers that started the Kirchners' downward spiral last year; and shockingly in their home state of Santa Cruz, where Nestor Kirchner was once governor and where the president cast her own vote.

There were long faces that night and the next day in the Pink House, the seat of the government. But none of the long faces belonged to the president — mostly because she wasn't there, but rather seeking silent refuge at the suburban presidential residence. When she did finally show up in the evening for a press conference — the second of her two-year presidential career — she put on her most defiant smile and and tried to downplay her party's defeat.

In a marked change of tone from the catastrophic campaign rhetoric of “two competing models of government” and the “return to crisis” if her party lost, the president suddenly seemed to say that the dreaded defeat was no big deal.

She rightly pointed out that her party still won 30 percent of the vote, leaving them the largest party in the Congress. Indeed, in Argentina's proportional party system, it won second place in most of the provinces that it didn't win outright — considered a defeat, but still not a total loss. Chastising an antagonistic local press, the president proclaimed her party had really only lost a handful of seats in the Congress, and that with further alliances it could still retain a quorum in both chambers.

But Fernandez de Kirchner might have been a little too optimistic. Immediately following her statement, several of the top opposition winners whom she'd been eyeing as allies came right out and denounced any possible cooperation.

The public was also unconvinced. In a very public display of defiance, someone hacked the Justicialist Party's website for much of the day after the elections. The page displayed only the message, “What's the matter Nestor — are you nervous? You reap what you sow,” and was signed, “The Republic.”

The owner of the email address displayed next to the signature — “” — said in an email interview that he or she waited to hack the page until after the election to be sure the act of protest would have the support of the Argentine people. Seeing the election counts, the hacker was convinced that it did.

After the initial theater, the real problems in the government started to show. Nestor Kirchner promptly resigned as chief of the ruling Justicialist Party, and named the governor of Buenos Aires province, Daniel Scioli, to be his successor.

He also instructed Scioli not to take the deputy seat to which he had been elected as a so-called “testimonial candidate” — a controversial tactic invented by Kirchner to attract votes. While it's illegal to hold multiple public offices at once, in the weeks before the election the Supreme Court was unable to find a law against a government officer running for and then declining to assume a new position. Some in the opposition, though, are still hoping to prosecute Scioli on the punishable grounds of having deceived voters.

Moreover, the congressional elections have precipitated shakeups all the way to the administration of the chief executive. The secretary of transportation, a symbol of the Kirchner's embattled rule, has already been let go, as has the minister of health. And at least two more secretaries said that they have offered resignations that were rejected by the president. While the president has assured the nation of the stability of her administration, her vice president, Julio Cobos, is clamoring for a cabinet overhaul.

With all the turnover, rumors of more on the horizon, and more opposition lawmakers entering Congress in December, it remains to be seen how the Kirchners will maintain their rule, or even whether they will at all.

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