The three women in power in Chile, Brazil and Argentina have undergone moments of crises which in turn affected their public image. However, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) seems to be the odd one out bouncing back in opinion polls with approving rating back around 50 percent.
Ending her second turn in office, which marks twelve consecutive years of kirchnerismo, CFK has shown extraordinary resilience to remain at the centre of Argentine politics. General elections tend to work like referendums for the political force in power which is why, beyond specific presidential candidates, people tend to organise their preferences in relation to the basic notion of either change or continuity. Thus, the question regarding who and why play a crucial part in deciding the course of the next presidential elections is relevant today. Government, opposition and opinion pollsters agree, as the title suggests, that CFK is the deciding political figure.
How can CFK’s extraordinary political fortune be explained? Why has her reputation not followed the common pattern of disappointment and scepticism of the electorate after two times in office and additional four served as First Lady? There are two interconnected sets of reasons that contribute to understanding this phenomenon, the type of leadership and the new nature of politics in Argentina (and to an extent Latin America) over the past fifteen years.
Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has put in practice a particular style of leadership that combines charisma, belligerence, melodrama and personalism. One key feature of CFK’s charisma has been her quality as a public speaker. She rarely reads her speeches which give them a rhetorical sense of truthfulness and authenticity. This rhetorical exercise is provided with political substance in relation to another important element present in her leadership nature which is a belligerence inclination. In its most primitive form belligerence refers to the identification of a common enemy. CFK has enacted this inclination against, for example, the local ‘landownership oligarchy’, who opposed higher taxes on agricultural exports and the foreign (and local) ‘vulture funds’, bond holders who speculated with Argentina’s sovereign debt restructuring, as well as against the ‘media corporation’, most notably the Clarín Group, who fiercely opposed the new regulation of the audio-visual sector punishing anti-competitive practices and abuses of dominant position.
The sudden death of Néstor Kirchner in October 2010, CFK’s predecessor in office, husband and life-long political partner, left a lasting imprint because since then CFK’s leadership has adopted a melodramatic tone. The death of Néstor Kirchner produced a massive outpouring of public recognition which in turn contributed to legitimizing the general direction of government policies. CFK extrapolated this moment of personal and collective mourning into a long process of bereavement by embedding references to Him (El, as she put it) in most of her public speeches. It was the routinization of this practice what shaped a legitimate sentiment into an exaggerated political gesture, reinforced the emotional aspect of her charismatic authority, and ultimately paved the way to a rather personalist style of leadership. In other words, the person tended to be more important than the party.
The political turn to the left in the region had a strong anti-institutional component as traditional political institutions were largely perceived to be part of the corrupted establishment. Since then, there has been a significant reorganisation of political parties in the light of the newly established mandatory open primaries, arguably one of the most important political institutions founded by the current administration.
And so what with CFK’s leadership style?
In effect, the complex nature of CFK’s leadership described above has awoken sentiments of either love or hatred in the Argentine people, never indifference. These opposing feelings in political terms share one vital common element, that is, its translation into a mode of individual activation that can, under certain conditions, shift towards social mobilisation.
Thus, the significance of CFK’s leadership is that, to a great extent, permeated forms of political identification in contemporary Argentina. The president’s public speech has therefore become an important narrative in so far as their effect creates an elementary dichotomy governing political identities in the country: the K versus Anti-K universes, with K in Argentina being used as a term for the Kirchner's. It provides symbolic references to the institution of the K camp but also to those who reject it altogether. The simplification of relevant political identities to one affirmative (I am with K) and one negative (I am anti-K) has had the effect of preventing greater socio-political diversity. Multiple options are what pluralistic democracy is about and the narrowing down of options to only two that matter does not contribute to the realisation of this liberal ideal.
However, the seemingly undemocratic nature of CFK’s leadership has been central in the formation of something like a ‘people’, the sovereign without which there is no democracy as such. Unless, of course, democracy is thought as the numerical aggregation of individual preferences without collective identities; an unrealistic consensual world in which dominant perceptions of democracy are usually built on. A type of governance that defaulted in 2001 in Argentina. Thus, the new nature of politics in the country, and also to an extent in Latin America, over the past decade or so, has changed significantly because it has defied the consensual model of democracy.
The political sphere gained relative autonomy from other spheres (the economic, for instance). There is a sense of recuperation of the initiative. For example, in contrast to the politics of the 1990s perceived as the simple administration of austerity policies, the nature of the politics of post-neoliberalism in Argentina lies on the possibility to use the institutional body to affect social change. Policies such as, for example, the elimination of the autonomy of the Central Bank, renationalisation of pension funds and creation of non-contributory pensions, expansion of social policies like the child allowance, restoration of collective bargaining, rise of minimum wage, among other policies, contributed to undermine the centrality of the neoliberal discourse as the only discourse. This needs to be read in the context in which neoliberalism continues to be the dominant global paradigm. Therefore, the recuperation of the political initiative is only marginal, but telling.
The construction of something like a ‘people’ different from the sense of aggregation of individual preferences reactivated a basic democratic principle like the open competition of at least two political alternatives. The fascinating particularity of the time in Argentina is that the reactivation of a more radical sense of democracy occurs alongside the engagement with political institutions, and not the contrary, its exodus. The state is not seen as an apparatus to destroy but as an instrument to colonise and use it to forge political change. This explains the current insignificance of the ‘anti-politics’ movement in Argentina, something apparent, for instance, in Mexico’s last mid-term elections. On the contrary, there has been a reconstitution of the representational bond because people feel that elections matter, they decide things and, as a consequence, feel compel to participate and vote. No crisis of representation here.
CFK as the Grand Elector in the next presidential elections needs to be understood in the context of the ‘unexpected return of the people’, as Yannis Stavrakakis put it, in her limited but crucial function in the construction of an inclusive political identity. Finally, the next presidential election marks a new moment in the process of democracy consolidation in Argentina, traditionally understood as institutional stability (with social exclusion), an equation which weight is being inverted as social inclusion (with institutional stability).
Juan Pablo Ferrero is Lecturer in Latin American Politics, University of Bath. His latest book is called Democracy Against Neoliberalism in Argentina and Brazil: A Move to the Left.