Depending on who you speak to, Argentina is about to enter either a glorious era of people’s rule or a dark chasm of authoritarianism. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, one half of the tandem that led the country out of economic chaos and back to growth, is heading for a landslide victory in tomorrow’s presidential election.
A win would earn an unprecedented third term for a faction that has governed Argentina since 2003. However, critics and supporters agree that “Queen Cristina” will emerge as the undisputed leader of a country where political opposition has for all practical purposes become absent.
“We are moving towards a single-party state with infinite re-elections,” said Sylvina Walger, a journalist who recently published a bestselling and extremely critical biography of the president, entitled simply Cristina.
Fernandez, predicted to win about 55 percent in tomorrow’s first-round vote, is so ubiquitous that she enjoys a first-name recognition comparable to that of Evita, or Eva Peron, the legendary wife of Juan Peron, who in 1946 founded the Peronist party that Fernandez belongs to.
Like Evita, who died of cancer in 1952 at 33, Fernandez’s massive popularity is partly based on a verbal war against a privileged social class held to be guilty of thwarting the prosperity of workers. However, unlike Evita, whose official status never rose above first lady, Fernandez went from being a senator during the presidency of her husband, Nestor Kirchner, to becoming the first elected female president in 2007.
“She is better at communicating with the people than her opponents,” said Horacio Verbitsky, columnist for the pro-Kirchner daily Pagina/12. “Nestor used to say to me that she would prove even more capable than he had been, and he was right.”
However, not everyone is so convinced of her abilities. Rivals, such as Hermes Binner of the Socialist Progressive Front, warn that the global financial crisis will start to tell on Argentina’s economy before too long. And a startling US diplomatic cable released last year by WikiLeaks asked telling questions about the president’s constitution and mental health.
“How is Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner managing her nerves and anxiety?” the cable asked. “How does stress affect her behavior toward advisers and/or her decision-making? What steps does Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner or her advisers/handlers take in helping her deal with stress? Is she taking any medications?”
Fernandez came into her own following the death of her husband of a sudden heart attack last year. An outpouring of public sympathy ended a sharp decline in her popularity. Generous social spending, a consumption boom and renewed economic growth have done the rest, making voters indifferent to the repeated charges of corruption and illegal enrichment by the Kirchners and their close associates.
Reports indicate that Fernandez, who has never felt much sympathy for newspapers, may seek to silence them completely once her mandate is renewed, in particular Clarin, a paper the forefront of investigations into the accumulated wealth of Kirchner officials and associates.
“There will be a war to the death against Clarin, which may not be a good newspaper, but it represents what is left of freedom of the press today,” her biographer Walger said.
Her administration is not averse to employing strong-arm tactics against opponents. Argentine Commerce Secretary Guillermo Moreno, one of the president’s closest aides, last weekend led a group of Peronists and beat up a campaigner of the opposition PRO party who was distributing campaign leaflets.