The End of Cristina’s Reign

Cristina Kirchner, President of ArgentinaArgentina held open primaries last Sunday whose ostensible purpose was to pick the candidates that will compete in October’s midterm elections. But Argentineans saw them as a major test of Cristina Kirchner’s increasingly corrupt, authoritarian presidency—and she was badly humiliated.

The rules make these primary elections a foretaste of the real race, which means that the president will be roundly defeated in October. More importantly, this spells the end of Cristina’s attempt to change the constitution so she can run for a third consecutive term. (Since she succeeded her own husband, who was president between 2003 and 2007, it would actually amount to a fourth Kirchner term.)

The beauty of Argentina’s political underdevelopment, if one can put it that way, is that, unlike what happens in Venezuela, where the competing factions of the dictatorship have been able to keep their differences from bringing the government down, Peronismo has a kind of built-in system of checks and balances that ensures no autocrat can rule forever. As soon as one Peronista smells electoral blood, he goes after the governing Peronista with gusto, with the result that the president is eventually brought down in large part due to internecine fighting.

This is what happened in Sunday’s primary election. A former Chief of the Cabinet of Ministers who used to be a loyal Kirchner underling, Sergio Massa, turned on her at the last moment and ran against her chosen candidate in the province of Buenos Aires, which accounts for a bit less than 40 percent of the national vote. Not to speak of several Peronista dissidents who have been in opposition for a while and also ran against her candidates in several other districts.  Over all, seventy percent of the country voted for anti-Kirchner candidates, while only twenty-six percent voted for the government. Kirchner, who was reelected with 54 percent of the ballots just two years ago, has lost half of her supporters.

Because the opposition is divided into many groups, ranging from Peronista dissidents to Radicals, Socialists, Progressives and center-right supporters of the mayor of Buenos Aires, the president is claiming that she leads the largest party. Granted, there is a sort of Snow White-and-the-seven-dwarfs aspect to Argentina’s politics right now. But the dwarfs are so numerous, and so many of them are Peronistas, that she is doomed.

The dispersion is a problem not so much in terms of getting rid of Kirchner, something that the dissidents will take care of, but of who will become the next president in 2015.

For the moment, Sergio Massa, a former free-market guy who became Peronista and now seems interested in adopting some kind of center-right platform, is the new star. But there have been many others. The only thing that is certain at this point is that this is the beginning of the end of Kirchnerismo, a regime that has ruined the country morally, politically and, now that the mirage of populism sustained by commodity exports has ended, economically.

Unlike Venezuela, where the opposition is united and ready to govern the country if given the opportunity, Kirchner’s critics have been unable to come up with a nationwide political structure under a common voice and with a unified platform. The fear is that, as has happened often in the past, one form of authoritarian populism will be replaced by another, or that Argentineans will manage to elect something better but Peronismo will make the country ungovernable—until the exhausted voters decide that they are better off giving yet another Peronista a new chance.

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