Argentina’s Elected Autocracy

But Kirchner isn’t wasting any time. Earlier this month, her supporters in Congress introduced a bill that would allow the government to seize a majority stake in Argentina’s only newsprint manufacturer. Such a move would obviously hurt anti-Kirchner newspapers such as Clarín and La Nación, especially given Argentina’s strict currency controls and import restrictions. Those papers are already struggling to deal with Kirchner’s undeclared advertising war: As the Wall Street Journal reported in February, Argentina’s supermarket companies and electronic retailers have been ordered by the government “to stop advertising in the country’s top newspapers.” The new judicial reforms will make it even harder for journalists to appeal unconstitutional assaults on their freedom, because injunctions against government policy will be capped at six months.

Meanwhile, Kirchner has also tried to manipulate Argentina’s financial regulations. “In November,” notes the Economist, “the government changed the capital-markets law to give the state-controlled regulator, the National Securities Commission, the power to intervene in companies listed on the stock market if the interests of minority shareholders are neglected. Ricardo Kirschbaum, the editor of Clarín, says he fears that this law will soon be used to seize control of the company.”

For now, Argentine judges are doing their best to uphold democracy and the rule of law. A few weeks ago, federal courts overturned the outrageous fines that had been slapped on private consultants who reported honest Argentine inflation numbers. Kirchner has consistently lied about the country’s real inflation rate -- which is approximately 25 percent -- and on February 1 the International Monetary Fund formally censured her government for publishing bogus statistics. The online business journal Latinvex has projected that “Argentina is likely to have the world’s highest inflation rate this year.” (Yes, Argentina’s inflation problem is even worse than Venezuela’s.)

Unfortunately, Kirchner’s judicial reforms have moved Argentina significantly closer to authoritarianism. Indeed, even before the Argentine Congress voted to end judicial independence, media freedom was steadily declining. “The press environment as a whole worsened in 2012,” observes Freedom House, “as the administration carried out smear campaigns against critical journalists, usually through public media.”

Opposition forces are now hoping that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of Clarín and strike down the bulk of Kirchner’s controversial 2009 media law. They are also hoping to pick up seats in Argentina’s October 2013 mid-term legislative elections. According to one pollster, Kirchner’s approval rating dropped from 64 percent at the time of her reelection in October 2011 to 34 percent in March 2013. Yet Kirchner is still benefiting from a weak and divided opposition, as she has throughout her tenure.

The mid-term elections may determine whether pro-government lawmakers can amend the constitution to let her seek a third term in 2015. They may also determine whether -- or how soon -- Argentina’s democracy can be saved.