Kirchners On the Ropes

I waited and waited and waited last night for Argentine strong-man Nestor Kirchner to speak. Just after midnight, I joined the general flow of people towards the door. All was quiet at campaign HQ. That boded ill for the country’s ruling party. Things, obviously, had not gone well at the mid-term polls.

The scene couldn’t have been more different from two years ago. In the same conference hall in the same Buenos Aires hotel, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (Nestor’s wife) had waved to the cameras and blown kisses to the millions who had voted for her.

The popularity of Argentina’s first elected female president (known simply by her first name, ‘Cristina’) has plummeted since that triumphant night in 2007. A protracted conflict with the country’s all-powerful rural bloc last year cost her dearly. She’s never really bounced back.

Yesterday’s mid-term was her chance to turn that around and breath new life into the “K Model” of politics. It didn’t happen that way. A centre-right coalition headed by dissident Peronist Francisco de Narvaez and backed by the business tycoon Mauricio Macri (former chairman of Boca Juniors) pipped the Kirchners to the post.

Analysts are busily assessing what the result means. One thing is clear. This is good for Argentine democracy. Congress has become an increasingly lame dog under the Kirchner reign, which began with Nestor’s election in 2003. Both enjoyed a parliamentary majority in the Lower House. Now that’s gone.

Logic would suppose that they will need to tone down their centrist presidential style and seek to rebuild alliances in Congress. But logic and politics are uneasy bedfellows, especially in Argentina. The new deputies elected yesterday won’t sit until December (the midterms were brought forward from October to July 28). A deluge of policies could feasibly be pushed through between now and then.

The worst case scenario would be that the Kirchners refuse to take the parliamentary route. With strong support among the ‘social classes’, as Argentina’s disenfranchised are called here, they could seek to rule through the street. It would be the first time. Argentine political activists like nothing better than a march or strike. The electorate might have shown a disgruntlement with the Kirchners, but the unions remain behind them. It’s amazing how much trouble transport workers can make if they decide to down tools (or, worse, block roads).

There was a longer-term issue at stake at yesteday’s elections as well. 2011 marks the end of Cristina’s presidential term. A strong win in the mid-terms would have set up Nestor to replace her in the hot seat, or at least one of their allies. Now the presidential race has been thrown wide open. Expect to see the Kirchner quorum diminish in coming months as Peronist legislators throw their weight behind other contenders from with the ruling party.

Sunday’s mid-terms mark a turn in Argentine domestic politics. The Kirchners’ six-year grip on power has loosened. It’s unclear how things will now pan out. It’s bound to get messy. But true democratic politics is a messy game. And with presidential elections in 2011, there’s all to play for.