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Cristina Kirchner: From First Lady to Argentina’s President

PJM Buenos Aires: Argentina didn't really elect Latin America's Hillary Clinton on Sunday. Ian Mount writes that Cristina Kirchner's use of image over substance separates her from America's former First Lady.

by
Ian Mount

Bio

October 29, 2007 - 12:45 am

That’s great, but what happens now?

That’s the question on the mind of many people in Argentina today, a day after First Lady Cristina Kirchner easily won the race to take over her husband N√©stor Kirchner’s job and become the country’s first elected female president. Yesterday, she took home about 45% of the vote compared to 23% for the closest runner up, former lawmaker Elisa Carri√≥. For a solid election roundup, check out this Guardian piece.

The result of this boring, passionless race had long been expected; as I noted in this piece for the PRI/BBC radio show The World, the process felt more a Kirchner family coronation than a presidential race. One might think that a candidate doing a cake walk to an easy victory would have plenty of time to develop and explain her policies and plans. But one would be very wrong. In a strategy that suggests her advisors thought clarity and transparency could only hurt her campaign, Cristina (as she’s known) was picked to run without a party primary, didn’t release a specific platform, didn’t give press interviews until shortly before the election (save for a widely mocked Time puff piece titled “The Latin Hillary Clinton“), and didn’t debate the other candidates.

In an intriguing post on Cristina’s use of image over substance-and on her legs-former Dow Jones Buenos Aires correspondent Taos Turner dismisses the comparisons that Time and others make between Cristina and fellow lawyer/First Lady/presidential candidate Hillary Clinton this way:

Cristina is often compared with US Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton. The two have a lot in common. They’re also quite different. Consider even their web sites. Hillary’s has a picture or two here and there, but mainly her site is devoid of photos. A born wonk, her site is filled with information about policy goals and detailed plans for reforming health care, education, the economy and foreign policy. Cristina’s site, meanwhile, is largely a photo gallery, with video and a few speeches here and there. But where Cristina has a tab for “Fotos,” Hillary instead has a tab for “Issues,” where she lays out policy proposals.

As the Associated Press notes with dry irony (the only humor it’s allowed), “Fernandez ran an unorthodox campaign, refusing to debate and spending much of the time abroad in photo-ops with world leaders.” She got no more specific in her acceptance speech, beyond promising to extend the country’s growth and fight poverty.

In other words, Cristina ran on the “Trust Me” platform: Using unorthodox techniques like defaulting on Argentina’s national debt, instituting price controls and vastly increasing public spending, her husband made himself into a national savior by guiding the country to an amazing recovery from its 2001/2002 economic crash. And she-a lawyer and astute career politician herself-was by his side the entire time. So, the reasoning goes, don’t worry about her plans; just vote to let the good times roll.

That might seem like a risky election technique, but when you’re only gunning for 40% of the vote against a weak, fractured opposition, it’s enough (Argentine law says that if the first round winner gets 45%, or 40% plus a 10% difference over the runner-up, there is no run-off). I did a bunch of “man on the street” interviews while researching the PRI/BBC piece, and what came across was that those who lived hand-to-mouth supported Cristina while those who had the luxury of thinking long term did not. A construction worker I spoke to in the blue collar La Boca neighborhood said that, simply, he didn’t have a job before N√©stor Kirchner but now did. On the other hand, several college-educated Aerolineas Argentinas employees told me that they wouldn’t vote for her because she hadn’t explained how she would handle the country’s looming problems. According to the government’s official results, Cristina lost the country’s major cities-especially in upper-middle-class neighborhoods like Palermo, in Buenos Aires, where she came in third-while she crushed the opposition in poor outlying suburbs like La Matanza. Showing surprise reminiscent of that espoused by left-leaning New York journalists after George W. Bush’s 2004 victory, a few days before the election a columnist at the local paper La Naci√≥n wrote about urban professionals who didn’t know anyone who supported Cristina.

The poor who now have work voted for Cristina according to the Reagan standard (“Are you better off than you were four years ago?”) while opposition voters saw that Cristina’s husband has put her in a tough spot and wondered if she had the cojones to turn back some of his policies to get out of it. His moves may have saved the country, but now there are energy and investment shortages because companies won’t invest in a country with price controls, inflation is high because of vast public spending (and thought to be twice the official rate of 8.6% because of government manipulation), and crime is an increasing worry. In an article on the soft economic underbelly of Argentina’s recovery, Bloomberg News writer Lester Pimentel notes:

The widespread suspicion that the government of President Nestor Kirchner has manipulated inflation data and the likelihood that his wife Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner will succeed him are transforming the Argentine bond market into a financial bloodbath.

In that sense, N√©stor Kirchner didn’t do Cristina any favors by bequeathing her the presidency. Beware what you wish for, as the clich√© goes. In a recent interview he gave members of the local foreign correspondents’ association, presidential candidate Roberto Lavagna (Kirchner’s deposed economics minister and the person often credited with the economic comeback) told us that, “If we continue in this direction, in 2008-at the latest 2009-we’ll hit the turbulent times of the past.” That’s scary talk in a country with recent (and multiple) experiences of financial meltdowns. Soon enough-Cristina takes over December 10-Argentina will meet the president they’ve elected and start to learn the direction she’ll take.

Ian Mount is a Buenos Aires-based freelance journalist who covers travel and politics for the New York Times, Food & Wine, and The World among others; his blog is GoodAirs.

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