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Opinion

Opinion

Opinion: Popular pope may hurt Argentine president

April 2, 2013

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— Almost three weeks after the election of Argentine Pope Francis, the euphoria over his designation — or “Francismania” — has unleashed a wave of Catholic fervor in Argentina. But there is a growing debate over whether it will help or hurt this country’s leftist-populist government.

There is no question that Francis has become the most beloved figure in Argentina’s recent political history.

Unlike late first lady Evita Peron — who was loved by many and despised by many others — it’s hard to find anybody who is not happy about his election here. During a visit to Argentina last week, I didn’t come across one single person — of any religion — who is not enthusiastic about the new pope.

Hardly a day goes by without a new anecdote about his humbleness making the front pages.

People are still relishing the recent headline about the pope’s personal call to his newspaper delivery kiosk in Buenos Aires to ask that his daily newspaper delivery be discontinued — “seriously, I’m calling you from Rome,” the pope had to insist to the incredulous newspaper vendor — or when he personally called his dentist in Buenos Aires to cancel a pending appointment.

The pope enjoys an unprecedented 90 percent approval rating, according to a soon-to-be-released poll. Comparatively, most polls show President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s popularity rate at 40 percent.

Outside the Buenos Aires cathedral, memorabilia vendors are selling Pope Francis T-shirts, Pope Francis calendars, Vatican flags and other trinkets.

On Thursday, during a visit to the Church of Nuestra Senora de las Nieves in the middle-class neighborhood of Liniers, the Rev. Adolfo Granillo Ocampo, the local priest, told me that he has seen a 30 percent increase in church attendance since the pope’s election. “There is a generalized feeling of euphoria over the pope,” the priest told me.

But when it comes to how “Francismania” will affect Fernandez’s apparent bid to change the constitution to seek another new re-election, opinions are more divided.

One group of thought says there will be a “Francis effect” that will help Fernandez’s party win October’s congressional elections and change the constitution, because the pope’s election has helped lift the public mood, diverting attention from rising inflation, record crime rates and fears of a new economic crisis.

Fernandez, who had strained relations with the pope when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires — her late husband, former President Nestor Kirchner, once labeled the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as “the head of the opposition” — has made a political U-turn and now publicly joins the generalized joy over his designation.

The smiling pictures of Fernandez and the pope during his inauguration in the Vatican will now help the president, according to this school of thought.

A second group of political analysts believe the “Francis effect” will neither help nor hurt Fernandez.

“This pope will change the world, but he won’t be able to change Argentina,” political analyst Rosendo Fraga told me, only half jokingly.

Fraga noted that since the pope’s election, Fernandez has not ended her attacks against independent media, or against her political rivals, despite the new pope’s historic calls for dialogue and political tolerance.

On the contrary, the government last week issued an order that in effect prohibits supermarkets from advertising in newspapers, which will financially strangle the main independent dailies that are critical of Fernandez, Fraga noted. The rule will not affect pro-government newspapers, which depend mostly on government advertising.

Finally, a third group of political analysts believes the “Francis effect” will hurt the Fernandez government, because the pope’s messages against authoritarianism, intolerance, and hubris will be read by most Argentines as indirect criticisms of Fernandez.

“A clash is inevitable, and the clash will end up hurting Cristina,” says Jaime Duran Barba, an Ecuadorean pollster who advises opposition leaders here.

My opinion: Despite Fernandez’s last-minute turn to embrace “Francismania,” the pope’s emergence as the most popular figure in Argentina will end up hurting her.

Granted, Pope Francis will most likely not make any political statements about Argentine politics. He is expected to make his first visit to Argentina as pope in December — after the October mid-term elections — so as not to interfere with local politics.

But in his homilies during his first Latin American visit to Brazil this coming July, his frequent criticism of autocratic measures, political arrogance and hubris will inevitably be read by many here as indirect barbs at the president.

At the very least, “Francismania” will have a dampening effect on Fernandez’s ability to circumvent the rules of good democratic behavior — and civility — to get re-elected at any cost.

— Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.

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