The Big Question: Will the election of Argentina's first woman president change anything?

Click to follow
The Independent US

Why are we asking this now?

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, wife of the outgoing president Nestor Kirchner, won Sunday night's presidential election outright, making a run-off with her nearest rival unnecessary. Under the constitution, Nestor Kirchner could have run again, but announced in the summer he was stepping aside in favour of his First Lady. With the Peronist party firmly under his control, his decision to put her forward as the candidate went unchallenged.

Has the democratic process in Argentina been corrupted?

Some of the opposition candidates are muttering about irregularities at the ballot box, but generally this appears to have been a fair election. The natural party of opposition, the Radicals, is still blamed for the catastrophic economic collapse of 2001-2002 and was hopelessly fractured. It was always Cristina's election to lose.

Why did Nestor forgo a second term?

This is one of a number of mysteries about this election. Nestor, who has mostly ridden high in the polls for righting the economic ship, has never felt it necessary to explain himself. But local analysts suspect it is a ploy to create a Kirchner dynasty. Two successive terms is the limit and Nestor could have seemed a lame-duck after re-election. This way, he can run again in four years' time, giving him and his wife 12 years in control. Indeed, Cristina could even try to come back a second time herself. That would make 16 years of a Kirchner in the Casa Rosada, the Pink House.

What else has been left up in the air?

Queen Cristina, as some like to call her, led a low-key campaign with as little substance as possible. She spent some of it abroad, for instance in the United States and Mexico, only gave two interviews to the local media in the final days before voting, refused to participate in debates with her opponents and didn't even have an official campaign headquarters. Consequently, Argentines went to the polls on Sunday with little clear idea of what her policies will be on either the domestic or foreign fronts.

Didn't she at least give some clues?

Early on in the race, Cristina's campaign slogan was "Change is Just Beginning", implying that she would break from her husband's policies at least to some extent. But it was ditched after a few weeks. It became very clear that her supporters really wanted nothing more than for her to follow much the same path as her husband. With its recent history of tumult, Argentina understandably is craving economic and political stability. Still, no one doubts that there will be a difference in style. While Nestor comes across as a mostly dour political operator, his wife is considerably more flamboyant. Sometimes criticised for her extensive travels abroad, she is also expected to put more energy than her husband in forging alliances with foreign leaders and attracting foreign investors back to Argentina. This may mean that while relations with Britain are tense again on this, the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War, Cristina may choose to lie low on the issue of the islands' sovereignty in favour of improving ties with the wider European Union. Some also expect her to build on her and her husband's records on human rights to champion rights issues around the world.

With Argentina booming again, Cristina faces an easy ride, right?

No, not at all. It is true that the recovery of the last four years has been little short of miraculous. With his expansive monetary policies – a devalued peso, low interest rates and generous levels of government spending – Nestor nudged Argentina into an unprecedented period of growth. The poverty rate has fallen from over 50 per cent to 23.4 per cent and unemployment has dropped to a 15-year low. But major problems lurk. Economists believe that inflation is running at at least twice the official rate of 8 per cent and threatens to explode. Price controls on electricity and gas have discouraged investment and severe energy shortages are on the horizon next winter. The unions will immediately pressure Cristina for new pay rises, which will fuel inflation further. Argentina still has about $20bn in defaulted debt, a problem that has to be faced at some point if the country is to have access again to international credit markets. And while Buenos Aires has a new sheen of prosperity, poverty is still a major problem. In reality, therefore, Cristina may have a tougher time in office than her husband.

How much attention is the rest of Latin America paying?

Plenty. Cristina is making history, after all, becoming the first woman elected to lead Argentina. (Evita, the second wife of strongman Juan Peron, never held formal office. Isabel, Peron's third wife, did lead Argentina after his death, but was never actually elected.) Some see a pink tide across the hemisphere. Cristina joins Michelle Bachelet who became Chile's president last year and then, of course, there is the possibility of another First Lady, Hillary Clinton, taking over the White House.

Under Nestor, relations between the US and Argentina have been fairly chilly, something that may change with his wife at the reins. Argentines are also watching to see if she will be as willing as her husband to cosy up to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez who has stepped forward to help dig Argentina from its debt problems.

She has been compared to Evita and Hillary. Is she all image and no substance?

Cristina is a woman and drew most of her support from the working classes, but parallels to Evita, a one-time actress from an impoverished family, stop there. The likeness with Hillary is more compelling. Both their spouses were governors of smallish states before rising to the presidencies. Hillary, however, waited a decent period after Bill's last day in office before running and faces serious rivals for her party's nomination.

On the other hand, Cristina has pointed out many times that she was a senator in Argentina before Nestor even began his political career. While the chattering classes in Buenos Aires are mostly disdainful of Cristina for her Prada-bag sense of style and posturing, no one suggests she does not have the potential to be a good leader.

Will Cristina succeed and one day eclipse Evita in the history books?


* She won with a much bigger margin than her husband, and will use the mandate to further repair Argentina's economy and image

* Argentina's improved economy will allow her to do more than Evita to lift up the country's poor

* A champion of human rights, Cristina will fight for the repressed around the world, for instance in Burma


* Although she has a long record in the national Senate, she has never run even a province, and will be overwhelmed

* The government is accused of fibbing about inflation, and the economic recovery is showing signs of serious strain

* Her big election margin was less about her and more about a collapsed opposition