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An Embattled Cristina Fernández de Kirchner: Can She Restore Her Popularity and Aid in Argentina’s Recovery?

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To the outrage of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Vice President Julio Cobos cast the decisive vote on July 17 against her plan to increase the export tax on grains being shipped abroad, effectively putting a full stop to a very tense domestic situation. As a result, Argentina today is considerably more tranquil now that the hostile demonstrations and strikes by Argentine farmers, which led to chaos in the domestic and overseas food markets, have ended. The crisis averted, average Argentines can now breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the nation’s most unsettling issue, a crushing annual inflation rate of almost 30 percent, can be addressed.

During last year’s electoral campaign, Cristina was consistently 20 to 30 percentage points ahead of the other presidential candidates in the polls. Her victory was expected as her husband, Nestor Kirchner, had just ended his own presidential term with high popularity ratings, and the country looked forward to the continuity of his economic success paired with Cristina’s less heavy-handed style of governance. But President Fernández’s unwillingness to reduce the agricultural export tax and her obdurate approach to the dispute – perceived by many to be haughty and authoritarian – severely damaged her popularity. Even some of her most fervent supporters became disappointed by her uncompromising attitude. In addition, many complain that Nestor holds too much sway over Cristina and has had a negative influence on her dealings with the rural sector.

For months, the farming conflict paralyzed the Fernández de Kirchner government, with a poll by Giacobbe & Asociados showing that her approval rating dropped to 19.2 percent in July, in contrast to a poll by Poliarquia Consultores which showed that her approval rating at 57 percent when she took office last December. High inflation and a slow growth rate, along with her confrontational attitude and inability to extinguish the corruption she had inherited from her predecessors, have caused this plunge in national approval. There is no question then that the new leader, who perhaps was prematurely labeled as Argentina’s new “Evita,” has severely disappointed her people and must now work single-mindedly to gain back their esteem.

The Rejection
In early July, after four months of protests by the rural farming sector and urban sympathizers, Argentina’s lower house approved the plan that Fernández had put into effect on March 11 to increase export taxes on grains and oilseeds. Passing by a vote of 128 to 122, the measure then moved on to the Senate for approval before becoming law. On July 17, after sixteen hours of debate, the Senate caused political chaos to erupt by rejecting the sliding-scale tax reform proposal, which had been identified by the president as critical in the fight against poverty. The Kirchners, certain that the Senate would approve the rural tax reform measure, were stunned when Vice President Cobos cast the deciding vote against it. “A law that does not solve the conflict is no use,” said an embattled Cobos, defending his position. “May history judge me. Forgive me if I am mistaken, but my vote is not in favor, it’s against.”

Indeed many have called Cobos’ move treacherous, and Cristina herself alluded to it as an act of “betrayal.” Disparagers say that it is very much like the Kirchners to blame someone else for their problems rather than accept responsibility for failure, and this has only intensified their already fading popularity. But the setback could be seen as more than just a political defeat for Cristina. It is also an unanticipated opportunity for Argentina to reorient its political profile. As noted political analyst Fernando Laborda explains, “It is unheard of in the history of Argentina that a vice-president, in his role as Senate speaker, [should] vote against the government. It means that Congress has shown itself to be independent in the face of the executive power, and our institutions have come out stronger than before.” Cobos has unexpectedly become a national hero for resolving the four-month conflict once and for all, and is being promoted as a unifying figure and a potential political force for the future.

Despite the Senate vote, the taxes could not be rescinded without further presidential action. After a tense silence during which many were unsure what move Cristina and Nestor would make, the economic minister, Carlos Fernández, announced on July 18 that the government would officially be discarding the proposed tax reforms that had caused four months of revolts and food shortages.

The Current State of Change
In order for Cristina to restore her credibility, the government’s image needs to be radically recast. Her administration must deal with the hard facts of the country’s economic situation, particularly the growing inflation rate. The president has announced an increase of 27 percent increase in the minimum wage, and it is hypothesized that she will increase benefits for families entrapped in near poverty as well. Additionally, there is a growing consensus that a dramatic change of faces in Cristina’s cabinet would be for the best. If the government can implement these social programs effectively and efficiently, confidence in it could recover.

On July 21, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner announced the re-nationalization of Aerolineas Argentinas and its sister carrier, Austral. This was a well-timed move for Cristina, as there was widespread support for the airline buyback. The action will certainly increase the favorable image of the government after its humiliating defeat in the Senate last week and the plummeting indices of its popularity.

Moreover, the president has already begun to shake up the top level of her administration, in wake of the political chaos caused by the endemic opposition to her tax plans, so that she might begin a new chapter in her still young presidency. Agriculture secretary Javier De Urquiza stepped down on July 22 and will be replaced by Carlos Cheppi, the president of the National Institute of Agricultural Technology. Urquiza is not the only casualty of the fiasco in the Senate; Cabinet Chief Alberto Fernández resigned the following day, with Cristina announcing that the former head of the social security agency, Sergio Massa, will take office as her new top aide. Alberto Fernández was also Nestor Kirchner’s chief of cabinet and provides living evidence of Nestor’s presiding influence over Cristina’s presidency. Many are glad to see the senior aide go. Latin News postulates, however, that, “Most Argentines want more ministers to be sacked… So his lone departure is unlikely to re-invigorate Fernández’s presidency.”

From Here on Out
Most Argentines seem to hope that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will now rule from a position of consensus rather than from a contemptuous and domineering stance. While the popularity of Vice President Cobos is surely increasing as a result of halting the crisis by double-crossing President Fernandez, it remains uncertain whether Cristina and Nestor will regain favor anytime soon. If so, it will certainly be a very difficult and delicate process, which will have to be done sooner rather than later, so that Argentina will not suffer a protracted ordeal.