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Argentina: Cristina turns it around

Argentina's first elected female president looks set to win a second term

Cristina 2011 09 27Enlarge
Argentina's president has a reason to smile again. (FILIPPO MONTEFORTE /AFP/Getty Images)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Just two years ago, the fall of Argentina’s first elected female president seemed complete.

Her party had suffered a humiliating defeat in midterm elections. There was even speculation that she would resign.

But now Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner holds a commanding lead going into next month’s presidential elections. Her approval ratings are approaching 60 percent.

Her resurgence, analysts say, can be attributed to the booming economy, social welfare programs, a weak opposition and the death of her husband a year ago.

Though Fernandez has offered few concrete indications of what she might tackle in her second term, she is likely to continue the interventionist economic and social policies that have marked her party’s rule.

Over the last eight years, Argentina has reveled in significant economic growth. But business leaders have often criticized the government’s policies, saying they drive away investment.

More on Argentina: Checking the numbers

Shortly after taking office in 2007, Fernandez imposed tax increases on grain exports. Argentina is one of the world’s largest agricultural exporters, and farmers responded by blockading major highways and halting sales. Argentines had to cope with repeated strikes, skyrocketing food prices and rationing.

Fernandez’s popularity plummeted, and she was forced to withdraw the taxes after they were voted down in the Senate.

“It was a disaster for her, and it took more than two and a half years for her to recover,” said Sergio Berensztein, director of Poliarquia, a political consulting firm in Buenos Aires.

In her first years as president, she also nationalized $30 billion in private pensions, a move her critics saw as a cash grab. And before she even took office, accusations surfaced that a Venezuelan businessman had tried to sneak $800,000 in campaign contributions into the country. (There was never any evidence directly linking her to the money.)

Then, after midterm elections, her Peronist party lost its majority in Congress. Observers referred to the defeat as “a mortal blow” that “dashed any dreams the couple had of extending their political dynasty.”

But last October, Fernandez’s husband and predecessor as president, Nestor Kirchner, died from a heart attack, leaving his widow alone at the head of the country.

More on Argentina: Nestor Kirchner dies

Kirchner had been credited with helping bring Argentina back from economic ruin. Rather than seek a second term, he had stepped aside and supported his wife.

Before his death, Kirchner was her “political boss,” said Carlos Germano, a political analyst in Buenos Aires. Fernandez was officially the president, but her husband made “80 percent” of the decisions, Berensztein said. 

While Kirchner had earned unrivaled support as president, his popularity had waned in the following years, and many Argentines grew tired of his aggressive and heavy-handed approach to governing.

“Cristina is the much more adept politician,” said Steven Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard University. “When she needs to cool it down, and cool down the rhetoric and stop picking fights, she’s much better able to do that than Nestor.”

Argentines responded to Kirchner’s death with overwhelming empathy for his wife. “Only after his death did Cristina become as popular as she is today,” Berensztein said. “She became a different kind of leader vis-a-vis what she was in the first three years of her term.”

Fernandez, 58, was born in La Plata, the capital of the province of Buenos Aires. She is a lawyer by training and served as a senator in the Argentine Congress, including during her husband’s term as president.

The world is a big quagmire, Fernandez said after winning the August primary, and Argentina needs leadership with the wisdom to continue the policies that allowed it to successfully endure the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

She owes part of her recent popularity to a number of social welfare policies. Her government began paying out monthly per-child allowances to parents who are unemployed or work in the informal sector, as long as their children stay in school and keep up-to-date on vaccinations and health checkups.

But Fernandez for the most part had little to do with her own success — in particular Argentina’s economic recovery, said Levitsky. 

The International Monetary Fund said last week that it expects the country’s economy to expand by 8 percent this year, the fastest rate in Latin America.

The global commodities boom has been good news for Argentina, a leading exporter of beef, corn and soybeans. Though inflation is high — private estimates put it above 20 percent — wages have roughly been keeping pace.

“Argentina, a country with a lot of economic instability through its history, achieved relative stability in the last eight years,” Germano said. “That is doing a lot to consolidate the political project of Cristina Fernandez.”

Additionally, the opposition in Argentina is remarkably weak. In the presidential primary last month, Fernandez won about 50 percent of the vote. Her nearest rival barely cleared 12 percent.

The opposition was already fragmented in 2007, said Berensztein, and now only more so. Four or five candidates end up competing for half of the votes.

“The weakness of the opposition is as much the story as the success and the strength of Cristina Kirchner,” Levitsky said.

And while Fernandez may be riding high going into the election, analysts point out that Argentina isn’t without its problems. The inflation rate is one of the highest worldwide, many of the government’s fiscal policies are seen as unsustainable and there’s significant capital flight out of the country.

“We really don’t have an idea still how resilient she is in the middle of a crisis,” Berensztein said. “She’s a very, very smart person. We’ll see how strong she is.”

The election is Oct. 23. The winner must take 45 percent of the vote or 40 percent with a 10-point lead over the nearest competitor to avoid a second-round runoff.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/americas/argentina/110927/first-elected-woman-president-set-second-term