Argentine elections could be beginning of end for Kirchner

By Sonia Avalos, AFP

BUENOS AIRES — Sunday’s midterm elections in Argentina look likely to confirm the beginning of the political end of President Cristina Kirchner, the Peronist leader whose popularity has hit record lows, polls show. Though the South American country is still one of the world’s breadbaskets — exporting massive amounts of soy, wheat and meat — her government has presided over expanding market controls, and sky-high inflation. As 30 million voters take to the polls to elect half the lower chamber of Congress and a third of the Senate, all eyes are really on presidential voting in 2015. Kirchner’s young and relatively inexperienced former chief of staff, Sergio Massa, 41, who has broken with her and formed a splinter Peronist party, is considered the man to watch. Kirchner, the 60-year-old standard bearer of the populist Peronist movement will be barred from running for a third term in 2015 and many see Sunday’s vote as the start of the race to replace her. Her Front for Victory faction is expected to retain control of Congress’ lower house and still be Argentina’s leading political force. But polls suggest it will lose seats to both Massa’s Peronist movement and to the divided right and left-wing opposition parties. The social and economic backdrop is rough for a country where expectations are high and performance runs behind them.

The economy is sluggish, the protectionist government sets an official exchange rate with the dollar (fueling black market trading) and violent crime is increasingly common. Kirchner — her nation’s first democratically elected woman leader — has seen her approval rating slide to about 30 percent, having fallen fast since her re-election in 2011. Any hope she may have had of having Congress change laws to allow her to seek re-election have long since been dashed. While the carefully coiffed president is usually a fixture on television and in other media, she has been absent from the election campaign, recovering from surgery to remove a blood clot from her brain two weeks ago. Mariel Fornoni, head of pollster Management & Fit, said the vote is very important because an era is ending. “Cristina Kirchner cannot be re-elected. It is a cycle that is ending, and a point of departure. Monday is the beginning of the race for the presidential election of 2015 and control of Peronism,” Fornoni said.

Business leaders broadly love to hate Kirchner’s failure to control inflation and protectionist economics; import restrictions, the nationalization of companies such as energy giant YPF and foreign exchange controls. She has made some happy with an aggressive promotion of fracking as part of Argentina’s all-out bid to secure energy independence — Buenos Aires currently has to import most of its oil at great cost. But many in the party base of ordinary working people love her (or her late husband, ex-president Nestor Kirchner) for combating poverty, while providing generous social welfare programs and retirement pensions. Fornoni said that when Kirchner won re-election two years ago — she first succeeded her husband Nestor when he died of a heart attack in 2010 — her approval rating was an extremely solid 64 percent. But that has plummeted because of the economy, the president’s confrontational style and her denial that inflation and crime were serious woes. The approval number is down to about 30 percent, Fornoni said. Critics are also dubious of her foreign policy alignment with anti-Western governments in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. Massa’s Front for Renewal party is running only in sprawling Buenos Aires province, which accounts for 40 percent of the electorate and is a pro-government stronghold. But he will be in good shape to run for president in 2015 if he does well on Sunday.