President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government has taken a battering in key mid-term elections in Argentina, calling into question the durability of the outspoken leader’s political model. The results also rebuff the leader’s chances of standing for re-election in presidential elections in 2015, a defeat that means more than a decade of family rule may be coming to an end.
The mid-term elections became a litmus test for the durability of Kirchnerism, the “national and popular project” referred to by its followers that has become government doctrine since Fernández’s now-deceased husband Néstor Kirchner assumed the presidency in 2003, passing the mantle to his wife in 2007. Sunday’s elections – in which 16- and 17-year-olds could vote for the first time – took place on the third anniversary of his death, with Victory Front candidates emphasising his legacy in a last-minute drive to improve their tally.
It had been widely suggested that the 60-year-old president wanted to change the constitution in order to run for a third term in two years' time, when her current mandate ends. But despite hanging on to majorities in both chambers of Congress - subject to negotiations - the government fell far short of the two-thirds majority it would have needed to push these reforms through.
Although the government improved its nationwide tally to over 30 per cent of the vote - up from 26 per cent at a primary ballot in August - the Victory Front coalition lost in the provinces of Mendoza, Santa Fe, Cordoba and Buenos Aires, the latter representing a third of the electorate. There was also a heavy defeat in the capital where coalition senator Daniel Filmus lost his seat.
Ms Fernández has been a marked absence from the campaign trail for the elections in which half the seats in the lower house Chamber of Deputies and a third in the upper house Senate were up for grabs. Recovering from brain surgery earlier in the month, she reportedly didn’t follow events in the media, complying with doctors’ wishes that she take a month away from office.
“As the primaries suggested, the government’s chances of continuing after 2015 are smaller,” said Buenos Aires-based analyst Federico Thomsen. “The results, plus the president’s disappearance from the political scene for health reasons, show the government project is drying up. Even if Fernández de Kirchner returns, it calls into question whether she could run again.”
The biggest blow for the government was in Buenos Aires Province, Argentina’s agricultural heartland, where the rebel lower-house candidate Sergio Massa easily defeated the officially nominated contender Martín Insaurralde. The latest figures gave him 43.92 per cent of the vote compared to 32.18 per cent for the Victory Front nominee.
“These election results are a defeat for the government,” said Ignacio Labaqui, professor of Latin American politics at the Argentine Catholic University in the capital. “This is the beginning of a transition that is open ended.”
Sergio Massa, the current mayor of Tigre, is the president’s former cabinet minister who broke away from the coalition earlier in the year to form his own Renewal Front. For Facundo Martínez, head economist at M&S Consultants, Massa showed a “different interpretation of day-to-day realities in Argentina” during his campaign”.
While the centre-right, business-friendly candidate hasn’t abandoned Peronism altogether, he has looked to mop up the disenchanted vote – those tired of the antagonistic language employed by the government, as well as perceived spiralling crime levels, currency controls and an inflation rate thought to be around 25 per cent according to private economists.
Massa has also promised to get tough on crime, even drafting in former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani to make a speech about his “zero tolerance” record at a campaign rally earlier in the month.
“People want an end to politics that divides and causes conflict and confrontation,” Massa told the Todo Noticias new channel on Monday. When asked about his aspirations for the 2015 presidential election he replied that he wasn’t thinking about it.
Massa is nevertheless being touted as presidential candidate in two years' time. If he runs, he will face Mauricio Macri, the right-wing mayor of Buenos Aires and former president of Boca Juniors football club who used the victory of his PRO party in Buenos Aires city last night to launch his 2015 campaign.
The government, meanwhile, has no clear successor, although it is though that the Victory Front governor of Buenos Aires province, Daniel Scioli, will stand. The one-time darling of Peronism and current vice-president Amado Boudou has fallen out of favour, embroiled in a several corruption scandals. In charge of the government while the president is on sick leave, the party has been at pains to keep the profile of the electric guitar-playing, Harley Davidson-riding former economy minister as low as possible.
Although the Victory Front has been keen to point out that is remains the “major political force” in the country, the Buenos Aires Province defeat is of huge strategic and symbolic importance, a traditional stronghold for the party.
“Massa has obtained an amazing victory – he essentially defeated Scioli and the president together, and that puts him in the front line for the presidential elections [if he choses to run],” said professor Ignacio Labaqui.
“The challenge is sustaining the victory. Two year in Argentinean politics is a very long time.”
The Kirchner dynasty: key moments
2003 A lawyer by training, Nestor Kirchner is sworn in after a succession of presidents in the wake of the major financial crisis which hit Argentina in 2001.
2005 Kirchner declares the restructuring of the country’s debt a success, and a year later announces that Argentina had paid back multi-billion dollar debt to the International Monetary Fund.
2007 Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner sworn in as president in December, succeeding her husband. They are criticised for working together to side-step presidential term limits.
2010 Nestor Kirchner dies from heart attack.
2011 Fernandez is re-elected in a landslide victory.
2013 Banned from running again in 2015, Fernandez had hoped to win enough support in October’s mid-terms to allow the constitution to be changed to allow her a third term.