Former Argentina President Néstor Kirchner’s sudden death on October 27 is the biggest shake up for Argentina’s Peronists since the death of Juan Domingo Peron on July 1, 1974. And a crisis in the Peronist movement—the powerful yet amorphous, catch-all party—tends to translate to the whole of Argentine society. Many analysts in the country are calling it a “before and after” event for Argentine politics.
In some ways, it’s as if an acting president died. In Argentina, Néstor Kirchner is to this decade what former president Raúl Alfonsín was to the 1980s and Carlos Menem was to the 1990s. Many people believe the former president, first-man, sitting congressman, Peronist party leader, and temporary president of Unasur was, for all intents and purposes, helping to call many shots in the executive branch. His wife and partner in leading the Peronist faction Frente para la Victoria, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, rarely questioned his authority in public. There were also strong rumors of Néstor Kirchner’s intentions to run for president again in the October 2011 elections.
Beginning in 2007, Kirchner amassed a great deal of power derived from alliances with lower-level Peronist politicians, union groups and businessmen. Despite creating his own populist version of Peronism, Kirchner shared the party founder’s audacity and sense of conviction. After being elected by default in a run-off election in 2003, Kirchner worked swiftly increase executive control over government institutions and challenged powerful political opponents—most notably the farmers, industrialists and previously amnestied military leaders who served during the country’s bloody dictatorship.
He also took the reins of the economy and, with strong public support, paid off the country’s $9.8 billion debt to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), partially paid back creditors from the $100 billion default in 2001 and later, during his wife’s presidential administration, pushed for the nationalization of $30 billion in private pension funds. Controversies involving the manipulation of government statistics and a number of corruption scandals, however, also weakened popular support for the Kirchners.
Bolstered by strong demand from Asia and high commodity prices, Argentina has weathered the global economic crisis with official GDP growth projections of over 8 percent in 2010. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s popularity is stronger than years prior (nearly 40 percent) and she is likely to successfully finish her term in office. If she chooses to pursue her late husband’s aggressive approaches to politics, however, she is likely to meet growing resistance from opponents in the agricultural sector, industry, the Supreme Court, Congress, the Catholic Church, and the country’s biggest private media outlets.
Before Néstor Kirchner passed away, political support for the Kirchners had begun to wane. Analysts were discussing the possibility of Mr. Kirchner´s former vice president Daniel Scioli—current governor of Buenos Aires Province—as a strong Peronist contender for the presidency with or without the Kirchners’ blessing. Other Peronist and opposition party candidate names have been thrown around without any clarification as to who will be listed on the ballot next October. Possible opposition candidates include Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, the current vice-president Julio Cobos, and Ricardo Alfonsín (son of former president Raúl Alfonsín. There are also some wild card populist figures like labor leader Hugo Moyano whose power to mobilize over the last few months culminated in today’s massive assembly of workers paying homage to Néstor Kirchner.
In the midst of mourning the loss of her husband and life-long political collaborator, Ms. Fernández de Kirchner will have to decide if she herself will fill the void and run for re-election in 2011. If so, she will have to find a way to reconcile with the growing list of opponents within and outside government frustrated with hardscrabble politics and confront growing public frustration with inflation, crime and corruption.
Janie Hulse is an analyst based in Buenos Aires, Argentina and the editor and producer of Insights from the Field, a quarterly publication promoting perspectives from within Latin America on politico-economic and security issues affecting the region.