The meaning of Kirchner’s recent defeat

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In a recent election for the mayoralty of the city of Buenos Aires, the candidate of Argentinean president, Nestor Kirchner, was defeated by a huge margin of sixty one to thirty four percent. The Peronist party, to which Kirchner belongs, was also defeated in the southern province of Tierra del Fuego. Mauricio Macri, a candidate defined as being center-right was elected in Buenos Aires and in the South, the winner was Fabiana Rios, a candidate who describes herself as center-left.

Most analysts agree that the victory of these candidates does not mean that Kirchner’s party will not prevail in the upcoming presidential election which will be on October 28, 2007. However, there are reasons to believe that these political setbacks of Kirchner’s candidates indicate more.

[More]Curiously, Macri, the winner in Buenos Aires, presented an agenda that was in many aspects the total opposite of Kirchner’s style and content. Macri, one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in Argentina, benefited a great deal from the privatizations of the 1990’s. He ran on a platform that promised greater efficiency in the provision of government services (mostly in public education, health and transportation), and more security in a city where crime has increased tremendously. He also repudiated political clientelism, a practice that has characterized most governments, including Kirchner’s. Macri is seen to represent values which the average Argentinean considered important for the functioning of a good government. In a society characterized by a lack of legal security, corruption, chaos, impunity, and economic uncertainty, Macri presented what Argentine journalist Eduardo Aliverti defined as non-ideological programs:1 law, order, stability, and security. The vote for Macri represented an expression of tiredness, with the political class, long considered to be opportunistic and useless, among Argentineans.

These recent election results might also be seen as resistance to the populism practiced by Kirchner and, in a way, the rejection of what Cristina Kirchner – the President’s wife and the next Presidential candidate on behalf of the peronist party has indirectly referred to as a new spirit in Latin America guided by neo-populisms.2 The vote for Macri very well may speak speaks for an important urban, upper, middle and middle-lower class group that has become concerned with Kirchnerbs policies.

The government of Kirchner is viewed as a moderate form of populism. An argentine political analyst, Marcos Novaro, says that Kirchner is not a populist like Chavez (who rejects free trade, neo-liberal economics, liberal democracy and is anti-American), nor is he like the former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos (who supports free-market, liberal-democracy, and integration with the developing world).3

Indeed, Kirchner has not gone as far as Hugo Chavez in destroying the private sector, nor has he carried out large scale nationalizations in the name of socialism. Neither has he subordinated the whole arc of the political party system under the wing of a political movement that has the monopoly on truth as Chavez did. However, Kirchner is not exactly a model of an enlightened leader who respects the principles of the free market, or the laws of a true republican democracy. The Kirchner regime or "style K," as the Argentinean press calls it, is a model of populism that includes elements of authoritarianism less flamboyant than Chavezbs but highly problematic nonetheless.

His unprecedented four-year popularity has been sustained by an incredible economic growth which has been at eight percent each year, mostly due to increases in prices of Argentinean commodities in the world market, a situation no different than the one Juan Domingo PerC3n experienced during the post World War II years. This economic growth has enabled Kirchner to promote policies based on strong state intervention, redistribution and anti-corporatism.

From the beginning, Kirchner adopted a popular anti-business ideology and attitude,4 which worked well with the Piqueteros–the groups formed by unemployed, residents of the shantytowns and others– whose demonstrations with brought down the government of Fernando de De La RC:a in 2001. He proceeded to intimidate companies, corporations, supermarkets and other businesses in an effort to force them to lower the price of their products. These actions, which are against the laws of a free market system, were carried out in the name of the people, or "the consumer" who could not afford the market prices.

In the same vein, Kirchner organized an overall boycott of Shell Oil Company, using the Piqueteros to demonstrate in front of the company headquarters and force the company to lower the gas prices. Shell could not resist the governmentbs coercive pressure and went on to comply with the "request" to lower the prices. Esso (Exxon) followed. Kirchner repeated the same assault on the supermarkets when their productsb prices rose. The government again blamed Argentinean inflation on companies that "seek profit and care very little about the people." According to Kirchner "supermarkets have united to raise the prices at the expense of Argentineans." He demanded that supermarkets "work for the country and leave the people alone." He also promised that the "government will organize the consumers (against the corporations)".5

The supermarkets, having learned from the Shell experience, proceeded immediately to comply with the governmentbs demand. Here we see not only an unconstitutional act of bullying, but an old fascist and totalitarian method where the state mobilizes people. In a normal constitutional state, the government would respond to mobilizations or protests and intervene to solve the conflict or, in the worst case scenario, would impose a binding mediation. But to become an active part of the conflict by mobilizing and using intimidation is clearly typical of non-democratic regimes.

In the last few months, an energy crisis has taken place in Argentina. Power outages threaten to paralyze the country and leave many people at the mercy of a colder than usual winter. This crisis can be attributed to numerous factors including the lack of water caused by drought in the rivers that provide hydroelectric energy, an increase in public demand, an increase in exports of gas to Chile, and a drop in the production of gas.6 The Kirchner government, after denying the existence of this crisis, stated "the crisis is the consequence of lack of investment on the part of the energy companies". Kirchnerbs price control policies caused a general tendency for companies not to invest in Argentina. Despite this fact, the governmentbs chief of staff, Alberto Fernandez, categorically asserted that "even if the prices rise, increases in investments are not guaranteed."7 Thus, what can be concluded from this statement is that the lack of investment or re-investment is not related to the governmentbs policy of price control (that discourages further production and investment), but to an intended "anti-people" policy on the part of the corporations.

The government then moved to take over MetroGas, the company in charge of gas distribution, for having interrupted such distribution as a result of the need to keep the reserves given increasing expected demands in the short run. While the government agreed not to take over the company, it succeeded in forcing the director out of office.8 This action was harshly criticized by the private sector that accused the government of violations of property rights and creating an improper climate for new investments.9

Kirchnerbs threat to cancel contracts with foreign companies if they do not re-invest in Argentina has become a common practice. This is a bit of nationalism in an era of globalization. His obsolete Third World conceptions of foreign capital imperialism seem to go against his need for investments. For example, in the sector of electric transportation, foreign investments are not welcome.10 According to some statistics and reports, the percentage of foreign direct investment in Argentina is one of the lowest in Latin America.11 There is no doubt that Kirchnerbs policies are mainly responsible for this situation. Moreover, Kirchnerbs anti-business war frightens not only the big businesses but also the small businessman and the merchant who feels vulnerable by his anti-capitalistic discourse. After all, the small businessman seeks "his own profit," as he should, but for Kirchner this basic 19th century principle, can "conspire" against the "common interest". Even though Kirchner has expressed strong support for national industry (which also benefited from the countrybs economic growth), it is pretty obvious that the private sector knows that its power can be curtailed by a random and capricious president. It is this sense of arbitrariness that is intimidating because it flies in the face of law and justice.

Kirchnerbs mindset contains a mixture of anti-establishment sentiments. His discourse is a combination of vulgar Marxism with what the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche calls "a rebellion in slave morality," namely, a sort of resentment against those perceived as being powerful. It is an angry discourse that contains conspiracy theories that attack big capital, the corporation, globalization, foreign businesses and others. This plays well with the naturally chaotic and often violent mind of the Piqueteros, whose political activity is in the streets and whose slogan is the simplistic dual formula of "friend and enemy," "good and bad." The Piqueteros, who come from the most marginal sectors of society, (many of whom are literally lumpemproletariat, not even members of the working class), have become experts at spreading this anger, supported by a bunch of enthusiastic journalist and intellectuals who celebrate the fact that the left is finally in power.12

What is interesting about Kirchner is that one of his objectives was to distinguish himself from the government of former President Carlos Menem (1990-1999). However, Kirchnerbs government has not scored improvements in the area of good government or even rights. Menem was accused of authoritarianism, as the executive power gained ground at the expense of the legislative and the judiciary. He was also accused of disparaging his criticizers, particularly the press. However, Kirchner is not much different.

Kirchner and his partners approved a law of financial administration which gives unlimited powers to government administrators to re-allocate budgets, a function usually carried in coordination and with the approval of Congress. Not only has Kirchner "bulldozed" the legislative branch, but he also tried to gain more control over the Judiciary. The legislature passed, and Kirchner quickly signed,13 a new law that reduced the number of professional and academic members of the Council in charge of appointing judges. The new law enables a political majority over the professional members of the Council. The law also denies a place for the second minority in Congress in order to make it easier for the majority party to exercise influence. It also allows the Council to meet without the presence of its professional and academic members.14 Kirchner and his accomplices in Congress passed a law that gives them control over judicial appointees, defining the future relation between the executive and judiciary, which is the virtual subordination of the latter to the former.

Kirchner has also grown increasingly intolerant of the press calling the free press "opposition." He has been cited by the press for not allowing them access to information on government activities, and, for boycotting certain journalists. Indeed, President Kirchner applied his influence on Congress to defeat "The Public Information Act" (Ley de Acceso a la InformaciC3n PC:blica), that would have enabled more transparency and access by citizenry to government activities.15 Cristina Kirchner became a vocal opponent of this law and a key player in the anti-press crusade.

It is not surprise that Kirchner has established strong relations with President Chavez of Venezuela. The most common belief among the people and the media for the relationship is pragmatic to receive cheap oil and to secure an additional source of foreign aid to counterbalance the weight of the International Monetary Fund. Interestingly, while Argentina faces an energy crisis, experts think that fuel-oil imported from Venezuela cannot resolve the Argentinean energy problem in the long run and scarcely in the short run.16 It seems Kirchner has become an ally of Hugo Chavez because he feels that he represents a new spirit in Latin America. This alliance is not mere coincidence. Kirchnerbs bullying of the private sector, his increasing executive decisionism, his take-over of the judiciary, his arbitrariness, his alliance with the highly tumultuous Piqueteros, and his pro-Chavez foreign policy, have frightened the Buenos Aires urban educated population. They want to continue down the path of modernization, respect for private capital, the rule of law and the need for a legal order that can guarantee rights, liberty and ensure that economic transactions are subject to legal protection. The vote for Mauricio Macri in Buenos Aires may well be a reflection of these feelings, and, perhaps, the beginning of the end of the Kirchner era.

Dr. Luis Fleischman is an advisor to the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington DC. He is also an adjunct professor of Political Science and Sociology at Wilkes Honor College at Florida Atlantic University.

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