Argentina’s Power Couple

Cristina Kirchner’s path from first lady to president is almost assured. But she’s no Hillary.

Cristina Kirchner and her husband, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner

It was always clear that the Peronist candidate for president would have Kirchner as a last name. But for months now, the big question in Argentine politics has been whether President Nestor Kirchner would seek re-election in October or designate his wife, Sen. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, as the candidate. “Será pingüino o pingüina,” Kirchner frequently said with a smile, using the male and female versions of his nickname—Penguin—which makes reference to his origins in Argentina’s southern Patagonia region.

The answer came Sunday. After a week in which all that anyone seemed to talk about were regional electoral defeats for Kirchner’s Frente Para la Victoria in the city of Buenos Aires and in Tierra del Fuego, the country’s southernmost province, the president decided to change the subject. The candidate will be a pingüina.

Now that it’s official, you can expect to hear more of a comparison that has been floating around for a couple of years: Cristina Kirchner as Latin America’s Hillary Clinton. Cristina loves the association, and those with knowledge of her campaign plans say that her aides will be pushing it more than ever in the coming weeks (which could explain why so many English-language stories about her candidacy this week mentioned it).

You can’t really blame journalists for the comparison, and it’s not simply because, just like Hillary, Cristina’s campaign makes an extra effort to call her by her first name. Some of it is just too easy. Cristina and Nestor met in law school. They then moved to his native Santa Cruz—a remote, sparsely populated province—and practiced law. After the fall of the country’s military government and the return of democracy in 1983, Nestor joined the provincial government, raised his profile, became mayor of Santa Cruz’s capital, and was elected the province’s governor in the early 1990s. Then, apparently out of nowhere, he was elected president in 2003.

While Nestor was busy in the province’s executive branch, Cristina decided to join the legislative side of things. After a few years in provincial government, she jumped to the national stage and became senator for Santa Cruz. Fast forward a few years to 2005, when she decided she’d rather represent the people of Buenos Aires province, the country’s most populous. Calls of carpet-bagging followed, but she won easily. As if that weren’t enough, the Kirchners even have their own financial scandal, relating to hundreds of millions of dollars of Santa Cruz’s money that was sent to Switzerland in the 1990s and was conveniently saved from the massive devaluations that marked the economic crisis of 2001.

Still, Cristina is no Hillary, and the Kirchners are definitely not the Clintons. If you equate time spent in government with how much someone deserves to be president, Cristina wins hands-down. Her national reputation preceded her husband’s when she joined the Senate in 1995, and she was quickly labeled a rebel for refusing to slavishly follow her party’s line. Even those who dislike the Kirchners concede that she was a good opposition senator. She had strong views, wasn’t afraid to share them, talked to journalists, and practically begged to be on television.

Then her husband came to power, and everything changed. The woman who shone in debates began to run away from them—she even refused to debate her main opponent when running for the seat in Buenos Aires. She shunned reporters, criticized the press at every turn, and has been single-handedly responsible for holding up a freedom-of-information law in Congress. And that wasn’t the only law that didn’t get approved because of her. Cristina has a stranglehold in the Senate—nothing gets done in Congress unless she approves. To put it simply: For the past few years, the legislative and executive branches have gone to bed together every night. The Clintons can only dream of such power.

Hillary entered Congress as a celebrity, but she stayed out of the limelight for two years before she began to take on a higher profile. She may use her husband’s popularity to raise money and to gather crowds, but she’s built her own plan for government. And, of course, Hillary is having to fight tooth and nail for her party’s nomination.

Nestor didn’t just decide that his wife should be a candidate, he has anointed her president. Barring a catastrophe, any candidate with the name Kirchner is going to win October’s election. For Argentines, the economic crisis of 2001 happened just yesterday, and, fairly or not, Kirchner is considered the savior. Who cares if the country is in the middle of an energy crisis or if the president changed the way inflation is measured when he found the numbers too high? Take us to hell, Argentines seem to be saying, just don’t take us back to 2001.

Most of Kirchner’s popularity is based on timing—he has presided over several years of strong economic growth. Mix in his populist rhetoric, and it’s no surprise that another comparison frequently comes up: Nestor and Cristina as Juan and Evita Perón. Beyond policies, there are also superficial similarities. Although her clothing is no match to Evita’s, Cristina doesn’t hide the fact that she likes to shop in the world’s finest stores, and there is endless gossip about secret plastic surgery trips (check out this video from the mid-1990s and then see this one from a few months ago). Cristina’s hand movements and gestures are reminiscent of Evita’s, but Evita lacked Cristina’s political experience. Although Cristina wouldn’t be the country’s first female president—Perón’s third wife, Isabelita, who was his vice president, took over for two years after he died—she would be the first to be elected.

Cristina may have earned her political chops in the legislature, but these days few see her as more than an extension of her husband’s policies and a placeholder for his return. (Still, they aren’t clones. Nestor, for example, is famously dismissive of foreign policy, while Cristina loves to travel abroad and meet with foreign leaders—including Hillary Clinton.) There are persistent rumors that Nestor is sick (cancer, they say), but nothing has ever been proved. Besides, the Kirchners have a tighter hold on information than Dick Cheney, so we’ll probably never know why she’s running in 2007 rather than him. And the truth is, it doesn’t really matter. They’ve run the government as a team for the last few years, why not continue for four more years?

Some are wondering if we might see a return of the old Cristina, but that seems doubtful. She is slightly less popular than her husband, but their approval ratings remain so strong (although they have fallen a little lately), and the opposition—both from other parties and within the Peronist camp—is so weak, that a few percentage points shouldn’t make a difference.

In Argentina, a person can’t hold the presidency for more than two consecutive mandates. But a two-person team could, at least theoretically, alternate back and forth for several terms. While out of office, Nestor could dedicate his time to building a stronger base of support, while Cristina deals with the nation’s problems. Politicians rise and fall with such speed here that it is unlikely the couple will hold on to power for more than a decade, but they seem determined to ride it out as long as they can.