Buenos Ares, Argentina Seven weeks before Argentina’s much-awaited June 28 legislative elections, there is a growing consensus that populist President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner will lose her majority in Congress, and that there will be major political changes in this country.
After a weeklong visit here, I found it hard to believe that Argentina is only preparing for a congressional vote. The country is in a state of political effervescence that makes it look like it was about to have crucial presidential elections.
Former president and ruling party leader Nestor Kirchner, the president’s husband and, according to insiders, the one who still calls the shots in the government palace, said April 27 that Argentina will head toward “chaos” if the opposition wins a congressional majority. President Fernandez de Kirchner said a few days later that the country will “explode” if that happens.
The president has been ruling with a 135-member majority in the 257-seat lower house of Congress. But polls say she will almost surely lose next month’s elections in the key provinces of Santa Fe, Mendoza, Entre Rios and Cordoba, which will leave her with about 120 loyalists in Congress.
If, in addition to that, the government loses the Buenos Aires province, which accounts for 38 percent of the country’s population, the results would be even more catastrophic for the ruling couple.
Opposition leaders are already savoring what many are calling the beginning of the end of what is known here as the “K era.”
While few expect the president to resign, several well-placed politicians told me that a loss of their legislative majority will force the Kirchners to give up their near absolute power, and to get used to “conditioned power.” The presidential couple will have to leave behind their authoritarian and confrontational style, and negotiate with ruling party governors and congressmen who will no longer respond to them, they say.
Will there be chaos in Argentina if that happens, as the Kirchners say?
Congressman Francisco de Narvaez, who is running for re-election as a leading candidate of an anti-Kirchner wing within the ruling party, doesn’t think so.
“We will have a new equilibrium, in which the president will have to go to Congress to discuss major issues, something that she’s not doing right now,” de Narvaez said. “We will have a country that is more balanced, with the checks and powers of a true democracy.”
Ruling party secretary general Alberto Fernandez, who served as former President Kirchner’s chief of staff from 2003 to 2008 and occupied the same position in President Fernandez de Kirchner’s Cabinet until recently, told me that the Kirchners are pragmatists, who will most likely accommodate to the new circumstances.
“For Cristina, having a more diverse Congress won’t be a problem that will affect her too much, because she has a lot of experience in legislative wheeling and dealing,” he told me. “At the most, she will remember her years as a legislator, and will promote a system of dialogue that will allow her to reach consensus on various issues.”
And it’s by no means clear that the government will be seriously weakened, because the opposition is made up of many parties, “which does not guarantee that it will be able to unite against the government,” Fernandez added.
My Opinion: While I’m not a big fan of Argentina’s presidential couple — their habit of constantly blaming others for the country’s ills has scared away domestic and foreign investors, among other things — one has to hope that the president finishes her term. Argentina has a sad history of military coups and early presidential resignations that should be left behind once and for all.
There is always the chance that, as is happening in Venezuela now, a poor election result may radicalize the president. That, and Argentina’s expected economic decline this year after several years of record growth rates, could lead to a new period of instability.
But, more likely, the June 28 elections will help bring a balance to this country’s politics and end the Kirchners’ confrontational governing style.
That would be a big step forward.
— Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.