Cristina, magnanimous in victory?
By David Roberts
It may sound like a cruel thing to say, but the death of former Argentine president Néstor Kirchner last year was probably the best thing that could have happened to the political career of his wife and current president Cristina Fernández.
Without a doubt, the sympathy that the passing of "Mr K" generated for his widow, along with her communication skills in nurturing that sympathy and courting popularity, played a major role in her overwhelming reelection at the polls on October 23. Of course it wasn't the only factor. The failure of the fractured opposition to put up a strong candidate also weighed in, as did the strong economic growth Argentina has enjoyed in recent years. But the turning point was Kirchner's death, and immediately afterwards Fernández's ratings in opinion polls shot up and have stayed there since.
The country's economic success - growing at some 8% annually in recent years - has been largely consumer and export-driven, especially by agricultural exports such as soy for animal feed and vegetable oil, along with natural resources. Perhaps ironically, it has been the initially highly unpopular export taxes on agricultural products, which a few years back led to large-scale protests against the Fernández government, that have provided the funds for social programs which in turn have helped her gain popularity.
Winning a second term in office is, however, only the beginning for Fernández. She now faces major challenges in solidifying Argentina's economy, introducing the structural changes that are needed to ensure long-term stability and wealth that flows, rather than trickles down, to the general population and thereby develops a strong domestic market. There is still far too much poverty, and lack of basic services, in Argentina, a country with so much unfilled potential for so long.
The underlying jitters facing the economy are reflected in the high level of capital flight, estimated at US$3bn a month as more Argentines move their assets abroad, perhaps fearing another economic meltdown. This was something recognized by the government in ordering foreign oil, gas and mining companies to repatriate 100% of export revenues, and in the measures being taken to prevent speculative foreign exchange transactions.
Another major challenge for Fernández is political - she needs to cut out the cronyism, not to mention corruption, we all know riddles Argentina's political scene, among the multitude of both pro-government and opposition parties and all their factions. This seeps through to the country's social fabric and creates the potential for instability, and carries with it the threat that Argentina will once again suffer the "boom to boost" scenario.
But now that Fernández and her allies also have control of the country's congress, the opportunity to face these challenges is there for the taking. A good place to start is to reach out to the opposition and strive to form a national consensus, which she can now do from a position of strength, even dominance. The first signs from the reelected president were positive in this sense, as she appeared to be changing her abrasive "kirchnerista" style to a more conciliatory tone in her post-victory remarks.