Argentinian elections: In the footsteps of Evita
She has been the first lady, but now Cristina Kirchner wants to be president herself – and she is exploiting an image from the past to drum up support. By David Usborne in Buenos Aires
Not nearly as hospitable as it sounds, the Regatta Club in Santa Fe – actually a grimy sports hall with chipped concrete terraces up one side and a metal roof – is vibrating with the racket of political anticipation. Men with grease under their nails, wives and mothers join raucous students in chanting the name of the woman they expect to be their next president. " Ooh-Ay, Ooh-Ay, Ooh-Ay, Cristina."
It is a football match atmosphere – or more appropriately, rugby – that shows no sign of faltering as the minutes tick by and still there is no sign of the candidate. Suddenly, word begins to spread. The plane carrying her through violent thunderstorms from the capital, Buenos Aires, 350 miles to the south, has crash-landed. Only a minute or so later, the next whispered bulletin: She is all right, she's coming.
This has been a mostly muted election campaign in Argentina. Four months ago, the incumbent, Nestor Kirchner, surprised no one by announcing that, in spite of his popularity, he would not run for a second term and make way instead for his glamorous primera dama, first lady, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. With her path to power barely challenged by a fragmented opposition, her election has been deliberately presented to the populace as virtually inevitable and she has kept appearances like this to a minimum.
Criticised by her opponents for her repeated travels abroad in recent months, those events she does attend inside Argentina are meticulously orchestrated. On Saturday, it was a polite conference of leftist political groups at the Pan Americano Hotel in Buenos Aires (which she owns).
At the Regatta Club two nights earlier the intent was to show her among the adoring masses, evoking, of course, the memory of the iconic Eva Peron, the second wife of Juan Peron, whose image was repeatedly shown in a slick biographical video projected on to screens behind the podium.
The strategy seems to be working. She snubs the domestic media, does not have a campaign headquarters, has refused to debate any of her 13 rivals for the keys to the presidential palace – the Casa Rosada or "pink house" – and is doggedly vague about what policies she would enact, particularly when it comes to sustaining the economic recovery engineered by her husband since the calamitous financial crisis of 2001-02, which is now showing ominous signs of fraying. "She doesn't want to go into specifics," an official anonymously admitted last week, "because it may affect the numbers".
And though it is hard to find an Argentine spontaneously expressing affection for Mrs Kirchner – even the roughly 300 inside the Regatta Club had been bused in by party organisers (no one would admit they had been paid to come) – the numbers seem good. The only question seems to be whether she will take enough votes on 28 October to avoid a second round. To do that, she must reach 45 per cent or, failing that, 40 per cent so long as her nearest contender is at least 10 per cent behind. So far, she is polling in the mid-forties while her only credible challengers, Roberto Lavagna and Elisa Carrio, respectively Nestor's former economics minister and a centre-left member of Congress, are barely in double digits.
Barring calamity, therefore, the woman some are calling Queen Cristina for her aloof demeanour and Botox-and-mascara looks (rumours of age-diminishing treatments abound) will receive her crown on 10 December. It will be a profound moment for the country and indeed the hemisphere.
She would be the first elected woman president of Argentina, a deeply macho land. (Maria Estela Peron, better known as Isabel, the third wife of Juan, was elevated to the post when her husband died while still in office in 1974 and Evita, in spite of her extraordinary popularity, declined to accept the vice-presidency shortly before her death from cancer aged just 33 in 1952.) Indeed, it could set the stage for a triumvirate of powerful, left-of-centre women leaders in the Americas, with Michelle Bachelet already ruling in Chile and Hillary Clinton, with whom Cristina has fostered close ties, potentially headed for the White House.
Her biggest fright so far – the biggest of her life she was to admit later – was the plane mishap at Santa Fe airport, when her Lear jet, buffeted by the storm, punctured a tyre, span around twice and skidded off the end of the runway. Quickly, however, it was retold to her advantage. "When I saw the small door open, I realised that I was the one scared," Santa Fe Governor Jorge Obeid told the crowd moments before Cristina, in a leather jacket only a few shades of mauve removed from the dyed auburn of her flowing hair, took the stage to a deafening cheer. "Her first words were: 'Hurry up! We have to make the rally'".
Mrs Kirchner, 54, delivered her stock speech, articulate but short of uplifting in oratory. She deploys the usual phrases of social inclusion and political consensus and does not shy from making reference to the all-too-recent tumult in Argentina, spanning the economic meltdown at the start of the decade when the country suffered the biggest debt default in history that plunged 60 per cent of the population into poverty – and she talks of the military dictatorship of the late 1970s.
"We've suffered a great deal and now that a new time is beginning, we want to summon everybody, without partisan affiliations, simply to be Argentine, to feel the mother country, and with a sense of responsibility for the ones who have less," she declares. "It is time for Argentines to look at one another without reproach, without accusations, without recriminations, but with the clarity to see what we did right and what we did wrong, so as not to make the same mistakes again."
The parallels between Cristina and Hillary are striking. Like Clinton, Cristina met her husband at law school and saw him rise to become the governor of a small state. (Nestor led Santa Cruz in the far south of Argentina while Bill took the helm in Arkansas.) She stood by his side as he became President and has emerged now to succeed him. And as in the US, there is talk of a political dynasty in the making.
The logic to Nestor's decision to eschew running himself is clear. The constitution in Argentina allows a president only to serve two successive terms but says nothing about serving repeatedly with breaks in between. Thus, in theory at least, the Kirchners could take successive turns in the Pink House, Nestor followed by Cristina followed by Nestor followed by ... and so on for 16 years or even more.
Nor is the steamroller progress of Cristina's run for office surprising. Her campaign slogan reads "Change is just beginning" but most Argentines fully expect her roughly to stay the course set by her husband. The style may change. Analysts expect her to take a much more dynamic interest in external affairs, wooing investors back to a country that has been a financial pariah since its default.
But above all, voters want her to follow through with the economic recovery that has slashed poverty and unemployment rates and generated growth rates of8 per cent for five straight years.
Victory is within reach also because of the sheer potency of Peronism, an almost sacred mantle in Argentina skilfully co-opted by her husband when he came to power and now worn by Cristina. It is a force that defies neat ideological description – a brand of pragmatic socialism that emphasises both social solidarity and large government, while still nurturing enterprise – to which the working classes especially still feel almost blind loyalty.
Peronism, above all, is a machine oiled for the retention of power. Both Kirchners have also underpinned their support with a vigorous commitment to human rights, particularly in regard to prosecuting those who perpetrated the torture and killings of the military dictatorship.
Nearly every social class has reason to thank Mr Kirchner. Thanks to the economic renaissance largely set in motion by Mr Lavagna before he was sacked as economics minister in 2005, a tourist and consumer boom has gripped Buenos Aires.
Subsidies are directed even to the rich, with energy and food prices artificially kept low and jobs have slowly been returned to blue-collar workers. The poverty rate is back down to 25 per cent. All Argentines are profoundly relieved that their country is almost upright again.
But whether Cristina is really the person Argentina wants is another thing. Her rallies are mostly small and political opponents abhor the nepotistic manner of her nomination to run. "Kirchner cares only about the building of power and about ensuring that Cristina is his successor," complains Javier Gonzalez Fraga, former Central Bank governor and adviser to Mr Lavagna. "They are not a couple, they are a company."
Mr Fraga accuses the government of deliberately creating the impression that Cristina's victory is inevitable. "They are pragmatic and unscrupulous," he explains over coffee in the Museo Renault, a slick showroom-cum-café in the fashionable Palermo district of the capital. "They are trying to convince us that 28 October is an unimportant event. If there is a good football match, or if you are invited to a barbeque, forget about voting because Cristina has already won."
Government officials, he alleges, are forbidden from mentioning the name of Lavagna and businesses have been warned off supporting him financially. "They have rendered him invisible."
As for the chattering classes of Buenos Aires, they mostly sneer at her haughty manner and – they say – tacky personal style. "The choice this time is very distressing," says Alejandro Babato, 30, an executive with a hotel chain in Latin America who, despite constant travelling, has always returned home to vote in elections. This time, work will keep him away, but he expresses relief at being spared having to vote for the woman he bluntly calls the "Cruella De Vil" of Argentine politics.
Wary also is Alfredo Orlando Guevara, 80, a former bank manager, who joined the delegates at the Pan Americano on Saturday. "We must beware because they magnify the positive things they say have been done. I am worried that what they say they will do, they will end up not doing.
"In 75 years I have always heard the same speeches."
As for Cristina's Peronist appeal, he recalls that Carlos Menem who, in the 1990s, drove Argentina into bankruptcy, called himself a Peronist too. "Look where that left us."
Opinion polls still show a very large group of undecided voters and in theory, Mrs Kirchner, who in 2005 was elected to the national senate representing Buenos Aires province, might just fall short on the first round and whoever comes second, Lavagna or, more likely, Carrio, with the opposition then united behind them, could mount a stronger challenge than she expects. Few are placing bets on her not winning eventually, however.
The more urgent question is whether she is up to the job, because her time in office may be far more difficult than might appear. Her husband has suffered a gradual erosion of support this year, amid serial corruption scandals and a slow worsening again of the economic indicators.
Most troubling are allegations that his government has fiddled the statistics to hide a newly galloping rate of inflation, officially put at just under 10 per cent but believed by some economists to be nearer to 20 per cent. It is a problem that was highlighted last week by a consumer boycott of tomatoes after they dramatically soared in price. Also darkening the horizon is a gathering energy shortage, triggered in part by price controls imposed by Mr Kirchner.
"The Kirchners have already spent their last coins of credit as far as the economy is concerned," says Mr Fraga. "One way or another we are going to revisit our economic difficulties."
The reporter at the Casa Rosada receives little intelligence about the first lady or her intentions. He is, however, escorted to the famous balcony from which an ailing Evita, more than half a century ago, greeted adoring Argentines in the massive square below. Soon it may be Cristina's to wave from. What the people will not see are the layers of pigeon droppings on the tile or the surprising dilapidation of the building behind. Cristina, if she wins, will make a polished queen of a land less shiny than it seems.