Sunday, November 3, 2013

Argentina's Fading Diva

by Pola Oloixarac for The New York Times

BUENOS AIRES — After a decade in the public eye, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has started to fade in her starring role as Argentina’s diva. With her party’s loss of key districts in the midterm Congressional elections, her dream of re-election in 2015 for a third term as president — “Eternal Cristina,” as her acolytes say — comes to an end. But she will not go away without putting up a fight.

After her party, the Front for Victory, performed poorly in the primary elections in August, Ms. Kirchner set about to recapture the public imagination, though her administration was flooded with bad news: inflation is unofficially at 20 percent to 25 percent, public debt is swelling while central bank reserves are falling, and a growing discontent has created factions inside the party, which until now had behaved under the whip of “la Señora.”

Ms. Kirchner needed to stir the lingering ashes of her romance with the people, who had rewarded her with 54 percent of the vote just two years ago.
She gave a rare interview to a celebrity journalist, a baron of the yellow tabloids. She dropped nine kilograms. She switched from skirts to black leggings, updating the widow’s uniform she adopted after her husband, Néstor, died in 2010. Internet memes featuring Ms. Kirchner as Catwoman made the rounds in social media.
Suddenly, the comeback froze. Her bespectacled face was seen, for the first time without makeup, in a dark car entering a hospital. It was as if the pop star of the movement were entering rehab.
Ms. Kirchner needed brain surgery to remove a blood clot in early October; it was reported that she had fallen and hit her head. The circumstances of the fall remained mysterious, but doctors prescribed a 30-day rest period. Without her leading the charge, her candidates seemed adrift.
The campaign was surrounded by scandal. A hidden camera showed a Congressional candidate, Juan Cabandié, trying to get out of a traffic ticket by arguing that he was a son of desaparecidos (the disappeared, victims of the 1976-1983 dictatorship, resurrected as moral bishops in the Kirchner board of virtue). A 22-year-old transit officer lost her job, but was rehired after the public outcry. The episode exposed an abusive political caste.
Protective of her political legacy, Ms. Kirchner was careful in delaying the choice of her dauphin. She overlooked high-profile candidates such as Daniel Scioli, governor of the mighty province of Buenos Aires, whose stoicism in the face of the humiliations he suffers at her whims makes him a possible 2015 loyalist successor.
As for her vice president, Amado Boudou, corruption scandals have made him persona non grata. Mr. Boudou goes every day to the presidential palace, the Pink House, but he no longer has Ms. Kirchner’s ear. “The only thing he can handle is a motorbike,” said Congressman Felipe Solá, referring to the acting president’s hobby. Mr. Solá is part of the Peronist “renewal” faction aligned with Sergio Massa, Ms. Kirchner’s former cabinet chief, an up-and-comer who has promised to pursue a market-friendly economic approach. Mr. Massa was the darling of the recent election, winning roughly 44 percent of the vote.
Argentina recently negotiated a loan with the World Bank for $3 billion, which would give Ms. Kirchner’s administration some breathing room. “Under these conditions of inflation, with no anti-inflation plan and such low reserves, it would be a miracle if she makes it to 2015,” said Pablo Schiaffino, an economist who lives in Buenos Aires. “It’s like a car running out of gas.”
When she was first elected, Ms. Kirchner told the country: “We deserve a new story for ourselves.” She delivered on that. Since 2008, she has woven a dramatic story line infused with villains, éminences grises and corporate powers seeking to dethrone her. With postmodernist swag, the narrative flew free from accountable issues: recently, after a train crashed in the Once Station, the government announced that it was taking over the railroads. The Peronist party had nationalized them in the 1940s, and privatized them in the 1990s. The party’s position swings to the left and to the right, but the train cars are the same as in the 1940s.
Ms. Kirchner aspires to go into history as Argentina’s biggest reformer, and some of the legislation passed on her watch supports her case, including the Universal Child Allowance (a stipend for poor families), gay marriage laws and more money for scientific research and university education. She could try to position herself as the leader who never cut back on welfare-state spending and propel herself to a glorious comeback in 2019, becoming the country’s populist icon of the 21st century, overshadowing Evita Perón.
But the economic clock is ticking. If Ms. Kirchner manages to sustain the bloated state spending two more years, she’ll secure the glory — and let the one who replaces her worry about paying the bills.