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ARGENTINA
A shaky start
6/3/2003
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President Kirchner faces destabilizing moves.

Néstor Kirchner, a Peronist who for 12 years governed the southern province of Santa Cruz, was signed in May 25 for a four-year presidential term. The presidency landed in his lap after former President Carlos Menem (1989-1999) withdrew from a run-off due to be held May 18.

In the first round Menem obtained 24.5 percent of the votes and Kirchner 22.4. All the polls predicted that Menem would suffer a massive defeat in the run-off on account of his economic policies of social exclusion and accusations of corruption (LP, June 18 and July 2, 2001). Some pollsters calculated that the anti-Menem vote would be as high as 65 points. Incapable of facing up to reality and unconcerned about his impact on the political system, Menem abandoned the fight, depriving Kirchner the means of legitimizing his administration.

Menem openly attempted to destabilize the situation, predicting the day he dropped out of the race that "with Kirchner Argentina will become another Cuba and collapse into chaos." The statement stirred reactions in every political party with the exception of those on the left (3.8 percent of the electorate).

Ultraliberal Ricardo López Murphy, who came third in the April 27 elections, said he was open to collaborating with the new government. Progressive Elisa Carrió, who finished fifth in the balloting, is giving Kirchner the benefit of the doubt but warned that her party, Alternative for a Republic of Equals, would not participate in the government.

Kirchner became the first president in Argentina’s history to assume office with such a low proportion of the vote. The new government is conscious of its weakness. Even if he had won the run-off with an overwhelming majority, Kirchner knew that in such a highly polarized election his success would have been thanks to a high number of anti-Menem votes. He also knew that he ascended to the presidency with the help of former President Eduardo Duhalde, a Menem opponent and head of the most powerful wing of the Peronist party.

The new president comes from a generation of 1970s social militants. During his days as a student activist he suffered the brutal repression of the most recent military dictatorship (1976-1983). Many of his former companions are among the country’s 30,000 disappeared persons. And yet, Kirchner stayed with the Peronists, absorbed their vices and, according to his critics, governed Santa Cruz as if it were his fiefdom.

Great grandson of Swiss immigrants, the son of a Chilean woman of Croatian descent, Kirchner married the daughter of a native of Galicia, Spain, who settled in Argentina when the country was opening its doors to everyone. Kirchner has that typical Argentine mix of nationalities, and has lived his entire life in Santa Cruz, the land of internal migrants. He is what southerners call a "NyC," (nacido y criado) born and raised in the province’s difficult terrain.

His first moves as president indicate that his administration could have regional relevance. He made clear his decision not to be tied down by the programs of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to renew the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) and maintain a policy of non-alignment with the United States. With Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, he agreed on arriving at policies through bilateral consultation.

In domestic politics Kirchner also differs from his predecessors. Contrary to IMF recommendations he hopes to generate employment through a "master plan of public works," the details of which are yet to be defined. His relations with giant financial corporations — favored by recent administrations — are not good.

The new president faces a dramatic reality. With production capacity destroyed, 57.5 percent of the population living in poverty — a fourth of them indigent — unemployment is more than 20 percent and 2 million heads of households barely survive on a state subsidy of less than US$2.00 a day.

The question raised by political analysts, politicians and leading social figures is to what extent, if Kirchner is sincere in his proposals, can he address this overwhelming reality? In general, the answers are not encouraging. No one can ignore that he came to the presidency because Duhalde was unable to find a better candidate to challenge Menem.

The elections divided the Peronist movement. The old radicalism of former Presidents Raúl Alfonsín (1983-1989) and Fernando de la Rúa (1999-2001) only gained 2.6 percent of the vote. And all the leftist parties together barely won 3.8 percent. Meanwhile, the liberal right of López Murphy has showed its muscle with support from 16.7 percent of the electorate.

The new political map does not favor Kirchner. What’s more, as of December he will have to govern with a newly formed Congress. Until then he will depend upon whatever agreements he can stitch together.

He faces a right wing untrammeled by ethical considerations. One only has to quote the editorial in the conservative daily La Nación published on May 14: "Argentina has decided to give itself a government for one year." The right, as in the first round of elections, when it put all its money on either Menem or López Murphy, is attempting to destabilize the government.

 

 


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President Néstor Kirchner
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