I’m thinking in this case of the immensely popular Cristina Kirchner, who was re-elected President of Argentina in October of last year in a landslide victory, capturing 54% of the popular vote.
Kirchner was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last week and underwent surgery on Wednesday. And while the initial prognosis is excellent, “Cristina” - as she is popularly known here - will need to be on leave from her duties for three weeks, during which time her vice-president will be in charge.
What’s interesting about this situation is not the popular outpouring of sympathy for Cristina it has inspired. She is a deeply appealing political figure. She’s dynamic. She’s compelling. When Kirchner’s cancer was first announced, #fuerzacristina emerged as a trending hashtag on Twitter. At 1 a.m. on the morning of her operation, supporters assembled in various plazas and squares around the country, and remained there until it was finished.
But what’s interesting is the panic that her illness has inspired, as much among her supporters as among her detractors. Even the media - which is, disconcertingly (at least to this journalist), frequently portrayed as the *real* opposition in Argentina right now - seemed anxious at the thought of her being out of pocket for three weeks.
And that’s because this is a lady who holds a lot of power in her hands. A lot.
Let’s start with the fact that she shredded her opponents in the recent presidential elections. The next closest candidate took only 17% of the vote compared with her 54%. Add to that the fact that her broad-based electoral movement now dominates both chambers of the legislature. In short, Kirchner has the sort of mandate to govern that President Obama would die for.
So, what’s not to love? A lot, actually.
On the institutional end of things, a central feature of Kirchnerismo - the brand of politics that refers as much to Cristina as to her husband, Nestor, who served as President of Argentina before her and who died suddenly in 2010 - is that of a hyper-presidentialism. This extreme concentration of power in the hands of the executive branch weakens other democratic institutions like political parties and the media.
At the same time, just as there are a lot of moms out there who sometimes find it difficult to renounce so-called helicopter parenting, Cristina apparently has a tough time loosening the reins with her subordinates. She is said to confide in only a handful of people, and it’s not at all obvious who her likely successor will be in 2015.
Which can make her governing style look a tad imperious, and on occasion downright chilling. It escaped no one’s notice that when Cristina announced publicly to the country that she’d be taking a three-week hiatus from office last week, she looked directly at the vice-president and essentially said “Look out! We’ll be watching you.” That kind of joke would be entirely expected in the U.K., where I live, because there you have a coalition government made up of two ideologically distinct parties that fundamentally disagree over many policy issues.
But that’s not the case in Argentina. These are two individuals within the same political party - albeit two different wings. One widely discussed (and never officially dismissed) rumor held that during her leave of absence, all policy decisions taken by the vice-president will be run through - wait for it - her son. Yikes!
Which isn’t to say that Cristina isn’t someone worth admiring on many scores. She is, first and foremost, a highly able politician, something even her critics acknowledge. And, much like the countrywoman she’s constantly compared to - Eva Peron - one senses in Kirchner a sincere concern for the plight of the country’s poor, in both her policies and her rhetoric.
There’s also no question that Kirchner’s victory in 2007 - and again in 2011 - were huge steps forward in both symbolic and real terms for women in this country. She’s the first woman ever to be elected President of Argentina, where women have only had the right to vote since 1947. Like Michele Bachelet in neighboring Chile before her and Dilma Roussef now in Brazil, Kirchner would appear to be part of a new wave of female politicians at the highest echelons of decision-making in the region. (The President of the Argentine Central Bank is also a woman.)
Lord knows, that’s a long overdue development in and of itself. As a former card-carrying political scientist who logged many years interviewing government officials in Latin America, I can tell you first hand that there haven’t, historically, been a heckuva lot of women hanging around the corridors of power. So it’s truly refreshing to see a woman’s face plastered all over Argentina’s billboards.
But we do have to ask ourselves whether, in concentrating so much power in one woman’s hands, Argentines are achieving a historic victory for women’s rights or merely enshrining presidential authoritarianism with a kinder, gentler face.
Fuerza, Cristina. I wish you a speedy recovery and an equally speedy embrace of a fully functioning, institutional democracy.
Delia Lloyd is a London-based journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, and The Guardian. Previously, she was a correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter at @RealDelia