Christina Fernández de Kirchner won Argentina’s October 2007 presidential election, becoming the nation’s first elected woman president. Many have ascribed her victory to the popularity of her husband, former president Néstor Kirchner, who is often still referred to as ‘our president’ in popular rhetoric. Her administration is viewed by many as an extension of her husbands, with the continuation of Kirchner’s policies facing the same issues.
Although poverty and unemployment decreased under his leadership, Kirchner’s expansionary monetary policy and placement of price controls on food and energy have led to serious problems. Rising inflation is estimated at around 25% (the official figure is under 10% due to a government-modified consumer-price index). An energy shortage, widely attributed to the breaking of contracts with energy providers as a consequence of price controls, and the subsequent withdrawal of foreign investment in Argentine energy, is a serious challenge facing the current administration.
The influence of Perón and Evita
Argentina’s contemporary political reality and economic and social problems can only be understood in light of the arduous and irregular trajectory Argentina has taken in becoming a politically stable democratic state. Though Argentina experienced its first free popular election in 1916, with the election of President Hipólito Yrigoyen, democracy during the country’s heyday as a stable, prosperous nation, was short lived. In 1930, a military coup toppled the democratic regime, making way for over half a century of political instability. Until 1983, Argentine governance fluctuated between civilian and military rule, the former of which was most successful under Juan Domingo Perón. Though he came to power via a military coup in 1943, Perón was subsequently elected president in 1946, and again in 1952. He led the nation until deposed by a military coup in 1955. Perón’s populist policies, including raising wages and creating a social security system, established his power base among the urban labor force.
His charismatic wife, Eva “Evita” Perón, played an integral role in perpetrating these policies, redistributing a great deal of wealth to poverty-ridden, ‘shirtless’ Argentines. She was adored by the nation’s middle and lower classes, and though she died in 1952, at 33, her image serves as a symbol of populist interests to this day. During her presidential campaign, Fernández attempted to draw parallels between herself and Evita by employing and invoking the former first lady’s image in order to leverage the Peronist legacy and gain public favor.
Perón returned to the presidential office in 1973 after nearly two decades of exile only to die a year later. His second wife, Isabel, did not enjoy the same popularity or political skill as Evita. Her poor leadership plagued this brief return of democratic rule with political instability.
The Dirty War
In 1976, a military coup successfully toppled the Peronist administration and for the following seven years Argentina was directly governed by the military, which carried out a campaign of kidnapping, torture, rape and murder on leftist and guerilla opposition. Though official figures are indeterminate due to the clandestine nature of the murders, it is estimated that nearly 30,000 people ‘disappeared’ during what has come to be known as the ‘Dirty War.’ This dark period in Argentina’s recent past still haunts Argentines. The prosecution of the military leaders who conducted the atrocities remains a contentious issue.
Return to Democracy
Democracy returned in 1983, with the election of President Raúl Alfonsín following the resignation of the military leaders who could not recover from a failing economy and their swift defeat in the Falklands (Islas Malvinas) War.
The successful completion of Alfonsín’s term, and the passing of office to democratically elected incumbent, Carlos Saul Menem, put national and international faith in Argentina’s democratic institutions. Menem ended the rampant hyperinflation that Alfonsín had not managed to control by adopting a fixed ‘one-to-one’ exchange rate pegging the peso to the US dollar.
Though he managed to temporarily stabilize the economy and politics through his free market policies, they are accredited with being major contributors to the imminent economic and political crisis of 2001. The national debt grew significantly as government borrowing subsidized the privatization of the social security system, unemployment rose, and the fixed exchange rate made it impossible for the government to use monetary policy tools to respond to economic shocks. After failing to pass a constitutional amendment allowing him to run for a third presidential term, Menem was succeeded in 1999 by Fernando de la Rúa of the opposition party, the Radical Civil Union (UCR), who pledged to bolster the slipping economy.
By 2001, however, the economy had delved even deeper into the depths of recession, and the emergency aid received from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) proved insufficient in helping Argentina produce a balanced budget. The denial of further IMF support in December 2001, followed by Argentina’s default on its international debt of $155 billion USD, the largest sovereign debt default to date, sparked the greatest economic depression in the nation’s history. As Argentines began frantically withdrawing funds from national banks, the banks placed strict limits on withdrawals, essentially freezing assets in an action that came to be know as the corralito. The devaluation of the peso in 2002 to a quarter of its value it had maintained while it was pegged to the US dollar drained the savings of the middle class and elderly to an extent that placed nearly 60 % of the population under the poverty line. While the economy has recovered from its lowest point in 2002, poverty remains a grave concern with a quarter of the population remaining under the poverty line.
The economic crisis led to political mayhem as La Rúa was forced to resign and the country saw a succession of three presidents within one week. Finally, on January 1, 2002, Eduardo Duhalade was named interim president by the congress and served as such until Nestor Kirchner was elected president in 2003 with only a 22% majority after his opposition, former president and fellow Peronist, Menem, dropped out of the race. The political party system had largely dissolved after 2001, with multiple candidates from the same traditional ‘parties’ competing in elections, creating separate coalitions with personality at the forefront of their campaigns. The fragmentation of parties aided Fernández’s recent election, as her campaign, backed by the Peronist political machine dominated by her husband, faced a very fragmented opposition and won the election with only 44.9% of the vote.
Weak parties and candidates running on individual tickets are conditions ripe for propagating the high levels of corruption amongst the political elite that have traditionally plagued Argentina. The measure of free popular elections cannot ignore the perseverance of political bosses who continue to dominate the political process in the provinces. With significant patronage and kickbacks in effect, political bosses provide voters in the poverty-ridden villas with party lists for whom they vote in return for supplies.
Further, while the Argentine Constitution, modeled on the US model in 1853, was meant to create checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, the officially ‘independent’ judiciary is subject to a significant amount of political influence, and presidential power is left relatively unchecked. While it cannot be ignored that Argentine democracy indubitably functions better on paper than in practice, and that democratic institutions have been weakened by the crisis, their survival, despite the risk of anarchy at the height of the crisis, has put faith in the persistence of democracy in Argentina and given credibility to a system with which Argentina has had a formerly volatile relationship.
During his two terms as president from 2003-2007, Kirchner leveraged his popularity to become the undisputed head of the Peronist party and expand presidential powers. However, he is criticized for pursing policies encompassing strong state power and little rule of law. In addition to his economic policies, there has also been a lot of criticism of his rather isolationist foreign policy which has alienated many of Argentina’s neighbors and western powers. Though Fernández has placed a renewed emphasis on improving foreign relationships, recent corruption scandals, such as the Antonini suitcase scandal regarding the suspected smuggling of cash from Venezuela in support of Fernández’s campaign, continue to threaten those relations. It is yet to be seen how the current administration will deal with these issues along with the unresolved and pressing issues of inflation and energy shortage.
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