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Are We About to Witness the End of the Kirchner Way in Argentina?

After 12 years of a Kirchner leader — either Nestor or Cristina — voters in Argentina will decide on Sunday to either close the book on the Kirchners or vote for continuing their policies and programs. What's their legacy?

by Gaston Cavanagh
Nov 21 2015, 4:25pm

Photo by Eduardo Di Baia/AP

When the former Argentine President Néstor Kirchner took office in 2003, he jokingly said that he was taking over the country with "more poor people than votes."

After all, he had obtained only 22.2 percent of the votes after his chief rival dropped out of the race before a second round of balloting and, at the time, more than half of the country's population was poor.

Kirchner reduced poverty and stabilized the economy, then handed the office to his wife, current President Cristina de Fernández de Kirchner, who was elected in 2007. Nestor Kirchner died suddenly in 2010, but his influence rode on in Cristina Fernández's policies and political style.

Today, 20 days before Fernández de Kirchner's term ends, the overall legacy of three consecutive terms with a Kirchner president is weighing on Argentine voters as they prepare to choose their next president on Sunday.

Will Argentines reward the Kirchnerismo agenda with a vote for Cristina Fernández's chosen successor? Or will the country close the book on the Kirchner era and pick a center-right figure from the opposition?

Candidate Daniel Scioli, a staunch Kirchner ally who promises continuity, was trailing slightly in the campaign's final polls before Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri, a pro-business candidate who bills himself as a figure of change. The polls, however, were misleading ahead of last month's first round when they gave Scioli a large lead, though he only scraped first place on the day.

After 12 years under a Kirchner presidency — one for Néstor and two for Cristina — Argentina is left with expanded infrastructure and civil and social rights, but also with higher levels of inflation and a precarious landscape for the country's defaulted debt.

"Kirchnerismo is leaving the country having lost its biggest accomplishments: economic growth and better social indicators," Rosendo Fraga, political analyst at the New Majority Center, told VICE News.

Fraga said these improvements were achieved during Nestor Kirchner's government, "but were lost during Cristina's second term."

A woman sporting a tattoo of Argentina's President Cristina Fernández hugging her late husband Néstor Kirchner listens to Fernández speak in Buenos Aires, Nov. 6, 2015. (Photo by Natacha Pisarenko/AP)

The political opposition goes a step further, claiming Fernández de Kirchner is leaving a more divided and more violent country.

Férnandez also cut a controversial international figure, seeking closer relations with Russia, Iran and China, at the same time as she could appear notably undiplomatic in her treatment of her new allies. In February this year she triggered a storm of criticism when she sought to mimic her hosts' accents in a tweet while on a state visit to China. 

The comments from China came in the middle of a political earthquake at home over the mysterious death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman. Days before his death, Nisman had accused the president of seeking to cover up the alleged involvement of Iran in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.

Related: Who Killed Alberto Nisman? - In Search of Truth in Argentina

Laura Alonso, an outspoken lawmaker from the opposition Republican Proposal Party, told VICE News the Kirchner "trademark" style sought to divide social organizations, political factions, and even institutions in order to strengthen the couple's power.

One of the Kirchners' catchiest political phrases is "What's the matter, Clarín? Why are you so nervous?" — a reference to one of the couple's most famous feuds, its confrontation with Clarín Group, the biggest media company in the country.

"They made politics based on pressure, and restricted liberties by using state means to harass all of those against the government through the intelligence services, the agenda they imposed, and state-bought media," Alonso said.

Related: Crime-Weary Argentina Sees More Mob Violence and Vigilante Killings

Argentina lost its competitivity in what used to be central pillars for its economy, such as meat exports. Today, other countries of the region, like Uruguay, have taken its spot. In the last eight years, the country had to reduce its economic reserves from $47 billion to $25 billion.

The country went from having an economic surplus to slumping into deficit, and even had to intervene in its exchange market.

Residents now need 10 Argentine pesos to buy one dollar, but the price rises to 16 pesos per dollar on the black market, where most Argentines buy them. When Fernández de Kirchner took office, the price per dollar was 2.97 pesos.

"Cristina abandoned the five economic rules imposed by Néstor, which were having a tax surplus, a commercial surplus, reserves, a competitive dollar, and debt-release," said Alberto Fernández, the former chief of cabinet during Kirchner's two terms.

"Nestor's government had good results. He received a country with 52 [percent] in poverty, and left it at 28, the same with homelessness, which went from 57 to 28 points."

Néstor Kirchner also reformed the country's supreme court, abolished laws that exempted the military from facing trial for crimes committed during the dictatorship, and renegotiated Argentina's external debt with the International Monetary Fund.

Related: Argentina Minister Defends Kirchner's Offensive 'Chinese Accent' Tweet

After Néstor Kirchner's death, on October 27, 2010, support for his wife experienced an uptick.

Fernández de Kirchner's laws on equal marriage, gender identity, euthanasia, and the reforms to the civil and commercial codes also earned her support. She was further recognized after promoting a reform to the social security system, which allowed the government's participation in some of Argentina's major companies.

However, while Fernández remains popular, those efforts might not be enough to carry Scioli to victory tomorrow.

"Poverty and employment levels ceased to improve in recent years, showing something's wrong," Fraga said.

Further troubling the end of Kirchnerism is the issue of political corruption, the strengthening of criminal organizations, and an uptick in crime. Pope Francis, a native of Argentina, sparked controversy earlier this year by saying in a private letter that the country was in danger of a "Mexicanization" over drug-related violence.

"The country is definitely better than 12 years ago, but it's way worse than four years ago," added Fraga, the political analyst.

Juan Manuel Abal Medina, another former Fernández de Kirchner cabinet chief, told VICE News that the Kirchners showed an ability to "recover the value of politics, of public life, and the state. Kirchnerism was able to rebuild the public authority and the state's capacity to transform reality."

However, for the opposition "the recovery of the value of politics" is further evidence of the top-down authority with which the Kirchners ruled the country, such as a recent legislative effort to censor commentary online.

"It was a cruel model with a political culture of 'I don't care'," Alonso said.

"Even Pope Francis was their enemy," she added, citing long-simmering political tensions between the Kirchners and the Pope when the Vatican leader was a bishop in Argentina.

For Fraga, Kirchnerism might be coming to an end, but it's leaving behind a tight grasp on the justice system, the country's Congress, and civil organizations.

"Cristina is ending with a better image than the rest of the presidents since 1983, and she is looking for her return in 2019," Fraga predicted.

Related: Who Killed Alberto Nisman? – In Search of Truth in Argentina

Follow Gaston Cavanagh on Twitter: @gastoncavanagh