Photograph by Ed Stocker.
It’s no great suprise that Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner won Sunday’s presidential elections. Local and international media have long predicted that her re-election would be relatively uncontested – and no last minute hiccups stopped her steamrolling to victory, with 54 per cent of the vote, as activists and party henchman gathered to hear her acceptance speech in a Buenos Aires hotel.
What’s really been of interest is watching CFK (as she’s known here) win the charisma battle hands down. It even seemed that journalists covering her campaign for the country’s main news channel, Todo Noticias – owned by Grupo Clarín, a media conglomerate openly hostile to the government – had momentarily been sucked into the curious blend of glitz, glamour and graft that Fernández represents.
She definitely has something. Of course this mustn’t detract from the serious problems within Argentina. Inflation is unofficially around 25 per cent (the government has other ideas), corruption is still rife (the country continues to fare badly in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index) and the government is spending money like it’s going out of fashion.
Growth is admittedly high, with the IMF predicting a rate of 8 per cent this year – making it the fastest growing economy in the world after China. But doubts about its sustainability remain.
When Fernández speaks, these questions are relegated to second place. You see, this wasn’t an election built on ideas or policy. No laws in Argentina force candidates to debate with each other – which means Fernández decided not to even mention her opponents. Or much solid policy for that matter. She didn’t need to. With an uninspiring opposition bent on digging up economic dirt and fear in order to win votes, the incumbent could strike a positive note. Appeal to Argentines’ sense of nationalism or the country’s potential and you’re onto a winner.
It’s the optimistic tone that she’s done so well, especially since the death of her husband, former president Néstor Kirchner, who had a fatal heart attack last year. She’s stepped out of his more confrontational, Hugo Chávez-cuddling shadow and become more of a president in her own right. And a head of state that has gone for a calmer, more compassionate discourse. Fights definitely still exist – but if they’re going to happen then she’ll get her party henchman to dirty their hands.
What she possesses is blend of weakness and strength. No speech of hers goes by without her husky voice quivering a little and looking like she’s about to break down in tears. She speaks to people in an informal way, gently scolding the crowd when they started booing the mention of right-wing Buenos Aires mayor, Mauricio Macri, at Sunday’s victory speech. ‘Don’t be like that,’ she said. ‘I’m going to get angry.’ It’s a combination of populism and maternalism that fascinates people and, of course, draws comparisons with Eva Perón (exactly what Fernández wants).
Argentinians seem to accept that corruption is part of politics; it’s a case of whether you are more or less bent than your predecessor. They might find fault in Fernández – and recognize that all is not completely rose tinted – but they also believe that things won’t be better with any of the current alternatives. Speaking to one Argentinian, he mentioned his salary had tripled in the last two years. Although this isn’t the case for all, standards of living are rising and salaries (certainly in the private sector) are outpacing inflation. Social spending is up and poverty is down.
Argentina seems to have an ability to push the self-destruct button, often manipulated by international financial bodies in the past. Fernández is prepared to stand up to these institutions – but let’s just hope she doesn’t surge forward blindly in her final term if the growth fiesta comes to an abrupt end.