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The fall of the Kirchnerist empire?

The aftermath of the June 28 election, which dealt a blow to Argentina's ruling party.

Nestor Kirchner holds up a baby as he campaigns in the Greater Buenos Aires' district of Malvinas Argentinas, June 24, 2009. (Marcos Brindicci/Reuters)

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.