ARGENTINE PRESIDENT Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner romped to a reelection victory Sunday, completing a remarkable political comeback. Deeply unpopular through much of her four-year term, she made a comeback following the death a year ago of her husband and political partner, former president Nestor Kirchner. Often dressing in black and benefiting from public sympathy, she showered Argentines with subsidies, and she restricted imports to promote local manufacturing — familiar populist policies that produced a burst of growth.
Economists predict that in her next four-year term Ms. Kirchner will face a reckoning, as boom-and-bust Argentina has many times before. Inflation, which exceeds 20 percent, is the highest in the Americas after Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela; capital is fleeing the country. Argentina is still locked out of international capital markets because of its 2001 default and subsequent stiffing of foreign creditors.
Ms. Kirchner, prohibited by the constitution from seeking a third term, consequently faces the choice of adopting responsible but unpopular policies to avoid another bust — such as a reduction in subsidies — or redoubling her populism. A closely related question concerns Argentina’s eroding democracy: Ms. Kirchner might use her new mandate to crush opponents or to adopt a more tolerant course.
So far the signs are not good. The government has responded to rising inflation by cooking official figures, and in recent months it has taken to persecuting economists who dare to report the truth. A dozen face official investigations and administrative fines of more than $100,000. Three, including a former official who was fired from her job of overseeing the government inflation index, are being prosecuted. Meanwhile, a judge has ordered six newspapers to surrender the names and telephone numbers of all reporters and editors covering the economy during the past five years so that they can be forced to testify against sources who provided unofficial price data.
A broader government campaign to silence independent media has been underway for years. The Kirchners have done their best to destroy Buenos Aires’s two most important newspapers, Clarin and La Nacion, by among other things getting laws passed attacking their economic foundations. One measure, declared unconstitutional by the supreme court, would force Clarin to sell key assets; another now before the Argentine Congress would mandate a government takeover of the country’s only newsprint producer, currently owned by the two papers. Ms. Kirchner has poured funds into pro-government outlets; a report to the Inter-American Press Association this month estimated that 80 percent of Argentine media were directly or indirectly controlled by the government.
It would seem fairly obvious that silencing independent economists and critical media will not cause inflation to subside. On the contrary, it will only inspire more capital flight and deter new foreign investment. Having won a big victory, Ms. Kirchner can surely afford to allow responsible critical voices in the media and accurate economic reporting. Even while congratulating the president on her victory, the United States and Argentina’s democratic neighbors should be pressing that point.