Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Cristina Fernandez Kirchner: neither Evita nor Hillary

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has declared outright victory in the first-round election to succeed her husband Nestor Kirschner as president of Argentina. Fernandez took 45 percent of the vote and becomes the country’s first elected female president. Fernandez needed either 45 per cent of the full vote, or 40 per cent with a 10 point lead over the next nearest candidate, to win the presidency at the first stage. She met the criteria twice, avoiding the need for a run-off election.

Fernandez is a former Senator and a leading adviser to her husband during his four year reign as leader. She and Kirchner are now about to take each other's role. The swap between husband and wife has raised inevitable comparisons with the Clintons. And there are many superficially attractive similarities. Both couples met in law school, both men became presidents, both women became senators, and while Hillary is the favourite in the race to White House, Fernandez has now claimed Argentina’s equivalent, “La Casa Rosada”, the Pink House.

The second obvious influence are two former wives of Juan Peron. His third wife and Argentina’s only other female leader, Isabel Peron, inherited power from her husband Juan after he died in 1974. Peron was overthrown in a military coup two years later. Eva "Evita" Peron was Juan's inspirational second wife who died of cancer in 1952. Fernandez acknowledged a debt to Eva Peron in an interview with Time Magazine last month saying Eva was a “unique phenomenon in Argentine history”. Women of my generation owe her a debt,” she said. “When we came of age during the [military] dictatorship of the 1970s, we had her example of passion and combativeness to get us through.”

Nevertheless Fernandez has rejected comparisons with both Clinton (who has yet to ascend to the top post) and Evita Peron (who was never president). In a rare radio interview with Buenos Aires La Red last week, she said the similarity with Hillary did not stretch beyond the fact they were both senators, attorneys and presidential wives. “I don't want them to identify me either with Hillary Clinton or with Eva Peron, or with anyone,” she said. “There's nothing better than just being oneself.”

Many in Argentina are wondering exactly how Fernandez will go about “being oneself.” With no effective opposition, Fernandez was able to run a media-shy campaign. She said little by way of her policies were if elected and she spent a great deal of the last two months abroad. She refused to debate her opponents and only gave two interviews to local media in the final days before the vote. She did back her husband’s recent call for Argentina to reclaim the Falklands and South Georgia, a nationalistic move that remains popular.

Analysts believe that not much will change with the handover of power from husband to wife. She has pledged to maintain his high growth rates while keeping inflation under control. Nestor Kirchner had several impressive achievements in his reign. The poverty rate has fallen from over 50 per cent to 23.4 per cent and unemployment has dropped to a 15-year low. Under the constitution he could have run again, but instead announced in the summer he was stepping aside in favour of Fernandez as the leftist Peronist party candidate. The opposition Radical Party has been in disarray since it was blamed for the Argentine economic collapse in 2001-2002, so a Fernandez victory was assured.

The biggest issue facing Fernandez is likely to be inflation. It is officially measured at 8.6 per cent, but some economists say it could be twice as much. Trade unions leaders closely-allied to the Kirchners are pressing for wage increases, raising fears of a “wage-price” spiral that devastated the Argentinean economy in the 1980s. The country also has $20bn in defaulted debt, a problem that has to be resolved if the country is to have access again to international credit markets.

Cristina Fernandez, now 54, has been longer in the public eye longer than her husband. The pair married in 1953 when Fernandez was 22 years old. Trained as a lawyer she was elected in 1989 to serve as a deputy in the provincial legislature of Santa Cruz in Patagonia. Two years later Nestor was elected governor of the same province. Since 1995 Fernandez has represented Santa Cruz in the national senate. Finally in 2003 Nestor Kirchner, with the key support of his wife, emerged from the chaos of a financial bankrupt Argentina to win the Presidency. Nestor is now returning the favour as his wife claims the plaudits.

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