Carry on Cristina? The 2011 Argentinian Elections

The smart money is on Cristina Férnandez de Kirchner to win a second term as Argentine president in October’s election. Who, or what, is standing in her way?

Frustratingly for those who expect everything about Argentina to be exotic and febrile, the forthcoming presidential election looks set to be a relatively run-of-the-mill exercise in constitutional democracy.

Unlike 1983 (the cathartic first free elections after seven years of military rule), 2003 (the return to some kind of normality after the economic emergencies of 2001/2) and 2007 (the swearing-in of Argentina’s first elected woman president), 2011 isn’t shaping up to be a “transformational” election. Rather, 23 October 2011 will be a day when voters wrestle with one of the oldest and most straightforward dilemmas in electoral politics.

Namely, do we want more of the same, or shall we give someone else a whirl?

Cristina Férnandez de Kirchner
Cristina Férnandez de Kirchner – Photograph by Expectativa Online

As things stand, more of the same is the prohibitive favourite. Incumbent president Cristina Férnandez de Kirchner is currently polling at around 37 percent. This is just short of the magic figure of 40 percent, the minimum proportion of the vote a candidate needs to win the election outright in the first round. If, however, no candidate hits 40 percent or if the second-placed candidate polls within 10 percent of the winner (42 percent plays 32 percent, say), a run-off will take place on 20 November. However – hang in there, we’re close – if the first-placed candidate’s share of the vote exceeds 45 percent, they’re straight into the Casa Rosada, do not pass ‘Go’, do not collect 200 pesos – which is how Cristina Kirchner won in 2007.

Clear? (If not, for more on Argentina’s electoral system, go here).

State of Play

If your knowledge of Argentina politics is shaped largely by media headlines – which from the government’s point of view have been trending recently from bad to worse – you might be surprised to hear that the president is such a safe bet for re-election. So it’s important to understand the two main reasons why the Kirchner administration gets the kind of press it does.

The first is that its relationship with Clarín Group, the country’s biggest media conglomerate, has, to put it mildly, tanked. The government has accused Clarín of monopolising the country’s media landscape and has promulgated laws to encourage competition. Clarín, in turn, has accused the government of pursuing a vendetta against them. For a literal illustration of the bad blood, look no further than the average wall in Buenos Aires, where the graffiti slogan “Clarín miente” (“Clarín lies”) vies for popularity with “The Rolling Stones” (which is saying something).

Clarin Miente
Clarin Miente graffiti – Photograph by Guillermo Tomoyose

The second reason relates to what Harold MacMillan termed “events, my dear boy, events.” For the government, the last year has been just one damn thing after another. The sudden death of former president Néstor Kirchner in October 2010 robbed Cristina of her husband and confidante (unusually for a political power couple they did a fair impression of actually loving each other) and her party, Frente para la Victoria (Victory Front) of its head-knocker-together-in-chief and de facto leader. More recently, Daniel Filmus, the FPV’s candidate in the Buenos Aires mayoral elections, was trounced by Mauricio Macri, the incumbent. Worse was to follow in the Santa Fe gubernatorial contest, in which FPV’s Agustín Rossi was pushed into third place by this man, Miguel del Sel, one third of popular comedy troupe Midachi.

Opposing Forces

If a united, skilful and determined opposition party stood in Cristina Kirchner’s path, she would probably be in trouble. But it doesn’t. And so she isn’t. Her closest challenger, Ricardo Alfonsín (Union for Social Development) is currently polling at just 17 percent; a reflection of just how fractured and thinly spread the opposition is. Affable, intelligent, reasonable sounding but not fizzing with charisma, Alfonsín’s greatest asset is that he is the son of the late Raúl, the president who led Argentina back to democracy in 1983 and one of the rare figures in Argentine public life to command a modicum of respect across the political spectrum. Alfonsín’s greatest weakness is that he is the son of the late Raúl, the president, etc., etc. The virtues of the father shall not necessarily be visited upon the son.

Ricardo Alfonsin
Ricardo Alfonsin – Photograph by Alfonsin 2011

Beneath the underdog is a clutch of candidates polling in single figures or just above. These include Eduardo Duhalde (Popular Front), the right-wing Peronist who was Argentina’s caretaker president in 2002/3; Hermes Binner (Broad Progressive Front), the outgoing socialist governor of Santa Fe province; and Elisa Carrió (Civic Coalition), a pugnacious and sharp-tongued politician with a high public profile who has as much chance of being elected president of Argentina as Justin Bieber has of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

All of the aforementioned have their partisans and activists, their pamphleteers, door knockers and balloon blower-uppers. None, however, can claim with any credibility to lead a mass political movement.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow for those who hate her policies (which, depending on your point of view, advance either social justice or crony corporatism) but Cristina Kirchner can make this claim. It is true, of course, that her base is disproportionately concentrated in the suburbs of Greater Buenos Aires, but this is less important than it sounds. Consider, for example, the district of La Matanza, a Kirchnerist stronghold covering an area approximating that of Queens, NY. It is home to 847,064 eligible voters, more than exist in the whole of Patagonia, an area twice the size of California.

Eduardo Duhalde
Eduardo Duhalde – Photograph by Santiago Trusso

The Endgame

The elections are just three months away. For the opposition to persuade a critical mass of More of the Samers to become Give Someone Else a Whirlers, only what American pundits like to call a “game changer” will do. A botched government response to a serious natural disaster might do it. Ricardo Alfonsín announcing he has invented a cheap cure for both cancer and hangovers might do it.

The more plausible scenario is that Cristina Kirchner goes to the Casa Rosada on 24 October to begin her second, and most likely final (the Constitution bars more than two consecutive stints in office) term as Argentine president. And that of her 40,091,358 compatriots, a third will be celebrating, a third moping, a third shrugging their shoulders and saying “¿Qué vas a hacer?” (“whatcha gonna do?”) and a dozen or so sketching out their strategies for 2015.

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Matt Chesterton

Matt Chesterton

Matt swapped his native England for Argentina in 2002 while chasing Gabriela, an implausibly gorgeous Argentinian whom he married the following year. He has lived and worked (but mainly lived) in Buenos Aires ever since. Having no obvious trade or skills but being quite good at spelling, Matt became a freelance writer. Over the past few years, Matt has written or edited books and articles for a variety of publishers, including Time Out, Wallpaper* and the British Automobile Association. In his spare time Matt translates film scripts, organises charity pub quizzes, consolidates his position as the number one Angry Birds player in the BsAs metropolitan area, and translates traditional nursery rhymes into Spanglish for his daughter Millie. (Her favourite is ‘Pop goes the Weasel’ or ‘Explota la Comadreja’.)
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One response to “Carry on Cristina? The 2011 Argentinian Elections

  1. mattchesterton says:

    Before anyone rips me a new one, allow me to say that I wrote this in advance of yesterday's primaries, in which Cristina Kirchner and her party won 50% of the vote, trumping even their own exalted expectations. 

    Up till yesterday you could say that the opposition was engaged in Mission Extremely Unlikely. Now it's Mission All-But-Impossible. Stranger things *haven't* happened in politics.

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