Woman power

Published : Dec 07, 2007 00:00 IST

President-elect Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and President Nestor Kirchner arrive in Buenos Aires on October 30 for her first official ceremony after the election. - MARCOS BRINDICCI/REUTERS

President-elect Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and President Nestor Kirchner arrive in Buenos Aires on October 30 for her first official ceremony after the election. - MARCOS BRINDICCI/REUTERS

Cristina Kirchner, who follows her husband to the Presidents chair, will also follow his policy of forging closer ties within Latin America.

President-elect Cristina Fernandez

ANOTHER Latin American country has elected a woman as its the President, and this time it is the turn of Argentina. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the 54-year-old spouse of incumbent President Nestor Kirchner, won the election held in the last week of October in the first round itself and that too with an overwhelming mandate.

Cristina Kirchner had a 22-point lead over her nearest rival, Elisa Carillo, a former beauty queen. The way to the top job for Argentinas First Lady was facilitated to a great extent by her husbands track record in office. Theirs has been a political partnership. Both started their political careers in the State of Patagonia as activists of the Peronist Party.

Like Bill and Hillary Clinton, to whom they are often compared, the Kirchner couple also met at law school. Many Argentines have also compared Cristina with the legendary Evita Peron. But Cristina Kirchner has emphasised that while she admires both Hillary and Evita, she is cast in a different mould. I dont want to be compared with Hillary Clinton, or with Evita Peron, or with anybody. There is nothing better than being yourself, she said on a talk show.

The Kirchners were always identified with the left-wing strand of the party, founded by General Juan Peron in the 1930s. The pro-American right wing of the party was in power for most of the 1990s.

Argentines were surprised when Nestor Kirchner announced earlier in the year that he was not running for a second consecutive term, which he is constitutionally allowed. Given his high approval ratings, he would have won easily. Kirchner stood up to the rich business elite and the military establishment, making both groups answerable to civil society. He also successfully turned around Argentinas economy, which was in the throes of a deep crisis when he took over. In the past four years, Argentina has been registering a growth rate of more than 8 per cent.

Nestor Kirchner also kept the countrys debt crisis under manageable proportions. Argentina still owes the Paris Club $6.3 billion. The government is currently engaged in tough negotiations with international banking institutions on its debt default totalling more than $100 billion. At the very outset of his term in 2003, Kirchner declared that the free market system espoused by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank were not the panacea for the problems faced by Argentina and the rest of Latin America.

Cristina Kirchner will take the oath of office on December 10. Among those who congratulated her on her election was Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who herself was elected in 2006. Both Chile and Argentina have instituted legislation that guarantees women strong representation in the government and in the legislature.

In Chile, all top government posts are shared equally by men and women. In Argentina, a law was passed in 1991 reserving for women one in every three seats in the national legislature.

The First Lady herself has been a high-profile politician since the late 1980s. In her youth, she participated in the struggle against the generals who ruled the country with an iron hand. She was a senator from the Buenos Aires district before her election to the presidency.

Nestor Kirchner, with

Among the important support groups of the Kirchners was the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The group, which consists of immediate relatives of those who went missing during the long years of military rule, has been agitating for its demands for the past 25 years. It was under Nestor Kirchner that most of the information about the 30,000 who disappeared during the Dirty War of the 1970s and 1980s came to be documented. During that infamous period in Argentinas history, the U.S.-backed military regime tortured and killed thousands of left-wing activists fighting for democracy.

Nestor Kirchner took decisive action against the senior officers responsible for the atrocities. He has also thrown his weight behind the Supreme Court as it continues its investigations into the Dirty War. Recently, a Catholic priest was convicted for complicity in it. The previous Peronist President Carlos Menem went out of his way to protect those responsible for the heinous crimes against the Argentine people.

Nestor Kirchner has said that he is now looking forward to spending the next four years as the First Gentleman. His spokesperson dismissed talk about a joint presidency. But, this has not stopped the Opposition from describing the present arrangement as a kind of monarchical democracy. Kirchner has, however, spelt out his future political plans to create a broad-based centre-left coalition comprising the ruling Peronists and sections of the Radical Party.

The Radical Party, until a couple of years ago, was the main rival of the Peronists. Many Western political commentators say that the Kirchners are thinking of alternating in office for the next 12 to 16 years to consolidate their model of governance in Argentina. In an interview to an American weekly magazine, Cristina Kirchner responded to this speculation by saying that if Hillary Clinton is elected President, the United States will have been ruled by two families [Bush and Clinton], for a quarter century.

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, with whom the Kirchners have close political ties, described the victory of Cristina Kirchner as a triumph for the women of Latin America, because women are going to change the world.

Argentinas close ties with Venezuela have come in for criticism from Washington. Venezuela helped Argentinas economy by purchasing security bonds worth $2 billion. Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil are committed to building a $4-billion gas pipeline.

The pipeline will extend from Venezuela to Argentina, passing through Brazil and Peru. Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador have become a closely knit group in Latin America. On key issues such as free trade, these countries have opposed the U.S.

It is expected that Cristina Kirchner will follow her husbands policies of forging closer economic integration with other Latin American countries and confronting Washington and the IMF on key issues. Nestor Kirchner and Chavez are closely involved in the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) and the Bank of the South.

These institutions will serve as an alternative to the free trade prescriptions forced on the region by Washington and the IMF. The Opposition parties made the countrys close relations with Venezuela a key issue in the election. They instead argued that relations with the countrys immediate neighbours, Chile and Uruguay, be given priority.

The new President has to face several daunting challenges. Inflation threatens once again to cast an ominous shadow over the economy, despite price control measures. Nestor Kirchner, in recent months, increased the pressure on banks to boost lending and cut interest rates in order to consolidate the economic advances the country had made in the past four years.

Cristina Kirchner will have to deal with the Paris Club if Argentina wants to repair its relations with the international financial institutions. It is a complex problem because the Paris Club rules stipulate that the debtor country has to get its economic programme approved by the IMF before negotiations can start for the rescheduling of debts.

The Malvinas (Falklands) issue is once again in the spotlight after the United Kingdom announced on October 17 that it is claiming the offshore continental shelf of Antarctica. The claim is based on the occupation of the islands. The area that the U.K. is claiming is known to be rich in hydrocarbons and marine products.

The Argentine government immediately reacted by reasserting its long-standing legal claim over the Malvinas and the Antarctic. The emotive issue has the potential of getting out of hand.

The memories of the war the two countries fought in 1982 are still fresh. Most Argentines remain unreconciled to British presence on the southern tip of their country and view it as a vestige of colonialism.

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