Argentine Power Duo Takes a Defiant Tone

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 27, 2006

BUENOS AIRES -- Argentina's two most powerful politicians -- President Nestor Kirchner and his wife, Sen. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner -- set out to win support internationally last week the same way they've won it here at home: by appearing beholden to no one.

At the same time he was trying to assure New York's financial establishment that Argentina will respect the ground rules of global finance, Kirchner was crediting his country's recent economic growth to the fact that his government defies the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund, which he holds partly responsible for his country's economic collapse in 2001.

When Cristina Kirchner was pressed during political forums to explain Argentina's close ties with Venezuela's government, she responded: "Nobody tells Argentina which friends to choose," according to media reports here.

Argentines have grown accustomed to that tone, and they've responded to it by awarding the first couple an increasing amount of popularity and power. With him controlling the executive branch and her occupying arguably the most powerful seat in the Senate, they have formed a political partnership that dominates the Argentine political landscape. For many here, the relevant question is not whether Kirchner will win next year's presidential election, but which Kirchner will win.

"He's keeping his promises as president, and she's the right hand helping him get things done," said Juan Maltez, 25, a business administrator in Buenos Aires. "Since they started, there's more jobs, fewer people on the streets, a smaller informal sector of the economy. So I like them both as candidates."

Though most suspect that the president will run for reelection in 2007, both of the Kirchners have been coy about the possibility of switching roles. Recent public opinion polls indicate that either would defeat expected challengers.

Their ascent has been steady since Nestor Kirchner won the 2003 presidential election with a meager 22 percent of the vote. After guiding Argentina out of its catastrophic economic collapse, his approval rate now stands between 60 and 80 percent in most opinion polls.

Last year, Cristina Kirchner easily was elected to represent Argentina's largest province, Buenos Aires, in the Senate. "She is the president's eyes and ears, and she really decides what does and doesn't happen in Congress," Nicolás Ducoté, a political analyst with the Buenos Aires-based Center for the Implementation of Public Policies Promoting Equity and Growth, said last week during the Kirchners' trip to the United States. "For example, the Senate is not in session this week, and I think that's because Cristina is not around."

With his wife's help on the Senate floor, Kirchner last month persuaded the legislature to cede some of its power by granting him the right to alter the budget without its approval. Also, the country's provincial governors, traditionally considered another check on presidential power, have become more financially indebted to Kirchner's office because of changes in lending arrangements.

Kirchner also has asserted more influence over the judiciary, effectively gaining the power this year to veto lower-court nominations, attracting criticism from organizations such as Human Rights Watch that say the changes make the courts more susceptible to political pressure. A series of impeachments and resignations has also given Kirchner's judicial appointments a majority on the Supreme Court.

The Kirchners contend that the changes were necessary: The courts have traditionally been breeding grounds of cronyism, and Kirchner's Supreme Court appointments recently have demonstrated independence by ruling against the president's stated positions. The courts have also gone after human rights abuses committed during the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, drawing praise in a country where the military's abuses are still keenly felt. Kirchner's fiscal authority -- which allows him more power to say no to provincial funding requests, for example -- has helped him implement some policies that also have been widely praised, such as the protection of a budget surplus.

Kirchner's consolidation of power has historical precedent in his native province of Santa Cruz, where he and his wife got their political start. He was elected governor of the province in 1991, and over the next decade he instituted constitutional changes that allowed him to be reelected indefinitely. At the same time, she was making a name for herself in the provincial congress and proving an effective legislative advocate for the couple's ideas. His populist rhetoric fit perfectly into an Argentine political tradition defined by Juan Perón; her gift for reconciling a glamorous personal style with political advocacy for the underclass begged comparisons with Perón's charismatic wife, Eva.

"Kirchner is a man obsessed with power -- getting it, expanding it, then holding on to it -- and he did many of the same things in Santa Cruz that he is doing now as president," said Walter Curia, an Argentine journalist who recently published a biography of Kirchner called "The Last Peronist."

"He has sought confrontations with what the general population believes to be the traditional powers: the IMF, Washington and a military establishment that hasn't had any power since 1983," Curia added.

Declaring independence from those unpopular targets goes a long way in explaining his popularity. His supporters see him as an everyman who shares their resentments. His message is one that many in Argentina were ready to hear after an economic collapse they blame on leaders who were too eager to take direction from outsiders, such as the IMF. Now, when the IMF and other financial institutions warn that Kirchner's heavy-handed policies threaten the possibility of sustaining current levels of 9 percent economic growth, Kirchner's defiant dismissals are greeted with applause.

"He is a man who very quickly learned how to read -- with incredible agility -- the lines upon which the Argentine people's greatest sensitivities rest," said Graciela Romer, a political pollster and analyst in Buenos Aires. "He's not a man who has a lot of natural charisma, but he has generated a series of measures with high symbolic content that have produced in the people a strong identification with him."

The approach has earned him detractors among the country's traditional power brokers, who view Kirchner's policies as impediments to the free-market system. To combat double-digit inflation on staples such as beef, Kirchner placed a partial ban on the export of beef, raising the ire of the cattle ranchers who have traditionally wielded significant political influence throughout the country and whom the president labeled "greedy." Last year he tried to control gasoline prices by encouraging consumers to boycott Shell Oil.

Though the Kirchners' populism doesn't reach the intensity of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, the couple doesn't appear afraid of the comparisons. They are consistently friendly with the Venezuelan leader, even if they don't endorse some of his more extreme views. The relationship doesn't trouble many Argentines, who simply consider it smart politics given the fact that the oil-rich Venezuela has lent Argentina about $3 billion to help repay debts.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company