Néstor Carlos Kirchner died Oct. 27 of a sudden heart attack. The former Argentine President and First General Secretary from UNASUR, died at the age of 60 years old at the peak of his political career. His wife, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will continue to run the country as she has been since December 2007. She will keep her governing role, but now without her operator, without the man who was willing to get his hands dirty, and loved it.
The roles in the marriage were very clear. Cristina was the woman of State, with her sights set on the horizon, the one who dealt with foreign affairs. Néstor was the day-to-day operator, the one who faced and dealt with allies and strangers. The one who drew the lines of the political playing field, the one who set the agenda, “the authoritarian.“
Kirchner overused his power on purpose. He fostered a tense atmosphere, polarized positions. He provoked the opposition to attack him to protect Cristina’s administration, keeping himself on center stage. He dignified politics, negotiation and debate. He put politics over the economy. He never wanted to be an administrator; he was obsessed with being a politician.
Undoubtedly, his death changes the political scene in Argentina. There are many elements to consider: the reflections of the government, prospects for the opposition, the Peronist movement, the response of youth—just to name some of them.
Carving a Trail
For the average Argentine, Kirchner appeared in 2002 as the protégé of Eduardo Duhalde who represented the most bureaucratic and stale form of the Peronism. These were ominous times, on the heels of the 2001 economic crisis. Times of the famous cry to politicians “Throw them all out!”, times of collapse. Duhalde, with the only legitimate position in the expanded structure of the Justicialist party, took control of the country Jan. 2, 2002. It was a country that took to the streets in desperation. His government fell following the murder of two demonstrators.
Duhalde governed just over a year and at all times worked to establish his successor. First, he tried two different governors, both conservative. The first one–Carlos Reutemann from Santa Fe–was scandalized and stated, “It’s just that I didn’t like what I saw”, without any more explanation. The other–José Manuel de la Sota from Córdoba–never could impress the electorate. And so this unknown Patagonian governor appeared (actually the governor of Santa Cruz), with an everyman appeal, impervious to protocol, short on charisma and suffering from a lazy eye.
Kirchner did not win the election, but he took office because after losing in the first round to two-time former President Carlos Menem (22% to 24%), the neoliberal from the province of La Rioja dropped out to deny Kirchner the full legitimacy he so urgently needed. Menem knew that his electoral floor and ceiling were about the same, that almost everyone who did not vote for him in the first round would vote against him in the second, so he had no possibility of winning. That was how Kirchner began to govern–with fewer votes than the number of unemployed in the country.
That meant he had to change course firmly and abruptly. He understood that he needed to win legitimacy with palpable, real acts. He didn’t get the traditional honeymoon usually granted a first-time president. In a climate of uncertainty, questioning of the political system and crisis of authority, he tried to keep the initiative, set the agenda with unexpected and strident measures. Decisions were made behind closed doors, in an office that was only visited by a handful of close advisors. So, backed up by growing reserves that accumulated in the Central Bank due to optimal international conditions, Kirchner proved himself able to wield power and government control in a situation of constant turmoil.
He defined himself by distancing his government from the dictatorship, neoliberalism and the International Monetary Fund. He didn’t mobilize the populace; he preferred to contain and incorporate the unemployed who blocked highways and created cooperatives in factories abandoned by their owners after December 2001. He isolated the ones he could not seduce, but avoided repression.
In politics, he relied on the Justicialist Party. He tried a subtle appeal to the urban middle class and “progressives”. But he couldn’t do it. He considered them inorganic. And Néstor was a man of power, of action. Instead, he turned to Peronism to build his base of support there, using a combination of pressure and persuasion. So much so, that at the moment of his death he was still president of the Justicialist Party.
Although he chose Peronist orthodoxy, he did it in a heterodox way. The day after his death, I found myself in the emblematic Plaza de Mayo with Pablo Taricco, a colleague who works in the Madres de Plaza de Mayo radio. He said, “Néstor had the ability to blow up structures, pacts, consensus, agreements, institutions. He broke them with the political legitimacy that only he had. And then he rebuilt them, pushing them a little or a lot to the left. ”
The Death of a Man, the Birth of a Myth
The reaction to Kirchner’s death surprised friends and strangers. Not just because it was so massive and spontaneous, but also because of its social composition. Youth, by far, occupied center stage.
I had the opportunity to go into the Casa Rosada, the center of power somber in its grief and melancholy. There was quite a crowd inside, sobbing and wringing hands. The President in sunglasses stroked the coffin, silently accompanied by her children and a group of officials dressed in black. Outside people stood in line for more than nine hours to pass just one instant in front of the closed coffin and yell a slogan while raising their fingers in the traditional V sign. Politics, like hadn’t happened in a long time, was a feeling.
Kirchner’s death very likely marks the birth of a myth. His story has all the makings of a myth: an early death, at the height of his powers and in the thrill of the fight, marked by the epic of having confronted both foreign enemies (the IMF) and domestic ones (“the corporations”). He didn’t have time to burn out or wear off. His irruption on the national scene was as intense and fast as his leaving. This myth could take deep roots in Argentina’s political culture, especially among new generations.
Kirchner put politics in the center. He assigned a new meaning to the popular rebellion of December 2001 and the negative motto “Throw them all out!” That’s how the idea took hold that politics is not necessarily an oppressive tool. This seduced thousands of young people, formerly used to skepticism, to eagerly dive into politics. The same young people who crowded into the funeral Oct. 27 and 28.
Principal measures of Kirchnerism (2003-2010)
These are moments of major readjustments in national politics. All eyes are on the internal workings of Peronism, divided into two big sectors. Kirchnerism, that holds the official strings of the Justicialist Party (JP), represents the most progressive wing. Federal Peronism, represented by former ally, Eduardo Duhalde, is made up of hardcore orthodox Justicialists.
This latter sector grew up around attacking not so much the administration of Cristina Fernández, but rather the “authoritarian” style of Néstor Kirchner. With Kirchner dead, it has no enemy. And now they have to face the predictable romance between the administration and society after the dead of the former President.
Inside Peronism, there are two factors to consider. On the one hand, the performance of the mayors and the governor of Buenos Aires, where 37% of the nation’s voters live. Kirchner’s former Vice President and current governor, Daniel Scioli, was always an ally of the government. But lately he was showing signs of autonomy and overtures to the dissident Peronism.
With Kirchner dead, Scioli becomes president of the national JP. But Hugo Moyano, chief of the powerful General Confederation of Work (GCW), is the mover and shaker of the JP in the city of Buenos Aires. In recent times, the truck leader has been demanding more power. On Oct. 20, a member of that “bureaucratic unionism” savagely murdered a leftist militant during a riot demanding stable jobs for subcontracted railway workers. The murder exposed the Argentinean model of unions, run by leaders encrusted in positions of power who morph into a perverse combination of union leader/businessman, and of alliances with politicians.
Without Nestor, Cristina will now have to find a new operator who negotiates with, rewards and punishes her troops. It’s likely that the pragmatism that has always been a characteristic of Peronism will temper the demands and ambitions of the dissidents, at least as long as the administration maintains high approval ratings among the population.
Like the Federal Peronism, all the opposition railed against the “despotism” of Néstor Kirchner. The mayor of Buenos Aires, wealthy entrepreneur Mauricio Macri, already announced that the recent death does not modify his goals and views.
Inside the Radical Civic Union (RCU), the other big party, the new situation substantially changes things. On one hand, the vice president, Julio Cobos, a fierce enemy of the government, was always considered a traitor. He received the post vice-president as part of the new Kirchnerist coalition. Coming from a radicalist background in Mendocino, he was the proof of the “plural agreement”. But he broke with the presidency during the long battle against large landowners when the government sought to tax the extraordinary profits of soybean, corn, wheat and sunflower exporters. After many months of confrontation, with the country mobilized, Cobos cast the deciding vote against the president as Senate President–he voted against the measures of his own government. The treason buried him won him big points from landowners and those who hated the “K style”.
But with the death of Kirchner, his betrayal becomes an inadmissible sin. The leaders of all different political currents attended the funeral, except two: Duhalde y Cobos.
The argument within the RCU is with Ricardo Alfonsín, who favors more dialogue. His father, the former president Raúl Alfonsín, died in early 2009 and Ricardo surged in the polls.
Whatever the opposition does, today the initiative comes from the government. Facing the presidential election of October 2011, the question is in what direction the presidency will go, how well it will respond to new challenges. The Industrial Union of Argentina (IUA) and the GCW have agreed to a sort of temporary truce. It remains to be seen if it advances using the K style or concedes and negotiates.
Barely an hour and a half after the announcement of Kirchner’s death, media spinmasters stepped out to mark political turf and demand readjustments, concessions and resignations. They did the same thing in the middle of this year, when Kirchner had emergency surgery. But the strength of the popular reaction forced even his worst enemies to realize the need to soften their blows and, at least for now, comply with the formalities of condolences.
Now it remains to be seen if the outpouring of people genuinely affected by Kirchner’s death will become the seed of something new. Since 2003, Kirchnerism has tried several strategies (first transversality, then broad coalition), but at the moment of elections it fell back on the orthodoxy and territoriality of the party.
Cristina was never drawn to negotiations within the JP. Her inner circle is alien to this structure.
The new situation presents opportunities to take up new causes, symbols, and banners. To install a new liturgy that renovates the symbolism of Perón and Evita.
Today the president is the clear heir and can rebuild those symbols in the image and likeness she chooses. And she counts with the thousands of young people who poured into the plaza to cry out, forgive the oxymoron, in euphoric grief. Their cries of lament and reaffirmation, anguish and strength will become the basis for rebuilding Argentine politics in the post-Nestor era.
Diego González (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an independent journalist in Buenos Aires and analyst for the Program of the Americas www.ircamericas.org. His blog in Spanish is diegofgonzalez.blogspot.com
Translator: Adriana McCormack
Editor: Laura Carlsen