ke no other president before her, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner managed to combine glamour and a sharp political acumen in a way that Argentinians will not forget. Adored and reviled, she was dubbed “Queen Cristina” by her worshipping supporters in the less privileged classes. But she was also known as the “Botox Queen” by her mostly upper-class detractors, because of the proud good looks that she has fought to preserve into her 60s.
“I have painted myself like I was a door since I was 14,” she once said. But immaculate self-presentation has always gone together with a taste for breaking the rules of political decorum. Britain, “a coarse and decadent colonial power”, has been a particular target for her scorn. Fernández has accused David Cameron of “mediocrity” and “stupidity” during one of her many altercations with London over the Falkland Islands, which Argentina claims as Las Malvinas.
She will be stepping down from office on 10 December, ending a long political career that she began as an activist in the 1970s, becoming a senator in the 1990s and finally being elected president eight years ago.
Fernández seems likely to be succeeded by a centre-right opposition politician, the Buenos Aires city mayor, Mauricio Macri, of the Cambiemos (Let’s Change) party alliance. A former businessman, Macri, 56, was born to wealth, a total contrast to the lower middle-class childhood of Fernández, whose father was a bus driver. The president’s own candidate, centre-left Buenos Aires province governor Daniel Scioli, lagged far behind in the polls leading up to Sunday’s runoff for the job.
“Hers has been a passionate presidency,” says Juan Tokatlian, a sociologist at Di Tella University in Buenos Aires. “But despite her popularity, the electorate seems to have grown tired of so much emotion and is leaning towards a more stable alternative.”
If that proves to be the case, Argentina will be veering away from eight years of rapprochement with partners in South America and beyond, including Venezuela, Cuba, China and Russia – all countries with which Fernández developed close commercial or ideological ties.
“She represents a phobia towards globalisation, similar to movements such as Occupy Wall Street in America or Ukip in Britain, anti-globalisation movements of either the right or left,” says political analyst Sergio Berensztein. “For a long time, Argentina voted in that direction, but the mood has shifted to the point that Argentina now seems poised to vote in favour of a pro-market political force for the first time.” Fernández modelled herself on Argentina’s unofficial patron of the poor, Eva Perón, a woman whose early death from cancer in 1952 raised her to near-saintly status.
Fernández, however, far outdid Evita in political clout and staying power. Any hopes that Evita might have had to succeed her husband Juan Perón as president in the 1950s were quashed by General Perón’s conservative-minded military comrades and ultimately dashed by her death at the age of 33. Unlike Perón, Fernández did manage to succeed her husband, Néstor Kirchner, in office in 2007 and was re-elected with a massive 54% of the vote, against a paltry 17% for her runner-up, in 2011.
Fernández can also claim to have been Argentina’s most powerful president, enjoying a solid legislative majority during most of her eight years in office, thanks to which she was able to push through progressive and controversial legislation.
Argentina became the first country in Latin America to approve same-sex marriage. She introduced a universal child benefit plan that boosted school attendance and reduced poverty, and the country’s giant YPF oil company and its pension funds system were nationalised.
However, her left-liberal policies stopped short of legalising abortion, and every year this continues to lead to many deaths because of the squalid conditions in many of the clandestine clinics where terminations are performed.
“She has done a lot for women in Argentina, including an important assisted reproduction law, but she is still a machista at heart. Even Pope Francis is more liberal than she is when it comes to abortion,” says Victoria Donda, an opposition socialist legislator in Buenos Aires.
Despite the many crises that have affected her government, including press reports of rampant corruption among her cabinet ministers, Fernández’s strong personal magnetism has proved remarkably durable. Her popularity sometimes climbed as high as 70% in the polls. Her image, endlessly reproduced on television screens and street billboards, became so pervasive that Argentinians simply referred to her as “Cristina”, So far this year Fernández has broadcast to the nation 43 times in 42 weeks.
The most lasting achievement of the Fernández years may prove to be the reopening of trials against human rights offenders of “Argentina’s bloody 1976-83 dictatorship.”
“Cristina’s human rights policy has been stupendous,” says Taty Almeida, 85, whose son Alejandro was among the 20,000 to 30,000 young opponents of the military who “disappeared” during the turbulent 1970s. Women such as Almeida, who form part of either the Mothers or Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, two groups of relatives of the “disappeared”, have grown used to crowding the front row during the president’s public speeches.
“She’s irreplaceable, her warmth, her heart, she has always been there for us,” says Almeida. Fernández can boast that more than 500 former military officers have been sentenced in a court of law under her watch, after trials were suspended for a lengthy time due to amnesty laws passed in the 1980s.
One of the biggest question marks hanging over Argentina’s next president, whether it is Scioli or Macri, is if these trials would lose steam without Fernández in the presidential seat. “I doubt that Macri would backtrack on these human rights trials, but there is a chance they might stall without Fernández behind them,” says Tokatlian.
At least one Macri aide, Argentina’s former ambassador to Washington, Diego Guelar, did float the idea of a renewed amnesty for the thugs of the dictatorship, although the idea was shot down by Macri. “Whoever committed any type of murder must pay the consequences,” said Macri.
Those fears refloated last week, however, when Macri published a list on his Facebook page of 200 intellectual supporters. They included the name of Mariano Gradín, a member of a group of lawyers who also favour an amnesty. Gradín’s group lends moral support to the former officers on trial, referring to them as “political prisoners”.
The Kirchners came to power in 2003, on the rough end of Argentina’s painful 2002 economic crisis, when a sudden banking collapse left a swath of the middle class see its savings go up in smoke. The national disaster added drama to the couple’s sudden appearance on the national stage, as Kirchner went from being the dark horse in the race to becoming the unexpected winner.
Somehow, the pair managed in record time to lift the country out of its huge $82bn sovereign default, one of the largest in history.
“Néstor Kirchner took some politically risky decisions, such as breaking with the IMF, putting effective policies into place for the most vulnerable, distancing Argentina slightly from the western nations and tightening ties with its Latin American neighbours,” says Tokatlian.
Whether it was thanks to a lucky windfall because of rising prices of Argentina’s export commodities, or because of his political skills, but Kirchner turned Argentina around, obtaining a massive 76% reduction on almost all defaulted debt and launching the country into nearly a decade of sustained economic growth.
However, there have been regular rumours of a darker, undemocratic side to the Kirchners.
When Kirchner stepped aside in 2007, allowing his wife to compete instead in an election that he could easily have won himself, there was speculation that the couple planned to bypass the constitutional limit on two consecutive presidential terms by succeeding each other in office indefinitely.
If that was really on their minds, her husband’s unexpected death of heart failure in 2010 left it unworkable. Instead, Fernández’s supporters began to hatch a plan for a constitutional reform that would allow her a third term in office. “The ultra-Kirchnerist sectors to which I belong want an eternal Cristina,” legislator Diana Conti explained to the press in 2011.
Tokatlian says: “I have no doubt that, had she been able to secure enough votes to push the reform through Congress, she would be a candidate today.”
Given her still amazingly strong popularity at the end of her eight tumultuous years in office, it’s possible that she could have stolen Sunday’s vote as well.
May 2003 Néstor Kirchner elected president.
December 2007 Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, pictured right with her husband, is elected president.
November 2009 She introduces universal child allowance, helping many families out of poverty.
October 2010 Néstor Kirchner dies.
October 2011 Fernández is re-elected. She is now barred from running for president again until 2019.