Argentinean politics was thrown into turmoil yesterday with the death of ex-president Néstor Kirchner, who suffered a fatal double heart attack in hospital in his native Patagonia. The husband of current incumbent Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, he had been the defining voice in national politics for the last decade.
Sixty-year-old Kirchner died yesterday at around 09.00 Argentinean time, the third occasion in a year that he had been hospitalised following heart complications. In Latin America, reactions to his death were immediate as regional leaders, including Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, paid tribute to a political strongman who oversaw the immediate fall-out from Argentina’s economic crisis of 2001/2, taking on the IMF and overseeing an impressive economic recovery.
Whilst Cristina is yet to make a public statement, the government announced three days of national mourning on a day when businesses were shut and people away from their desks due to work on a new national census. As dignitaries scrambled to board flights to El Calafate in Patagonia and the national congress organised a memorial, Buenos Aires’ historic Plaza de Mayo – opposite the Casa Rosada palace – filled with people paying tribute. The weekend’s football fixtures were even cancelled, a normally unthinkable gesture.
But beyond the shock of his untimely death, Kirchner’s passing raises immediate questions about the ability of his wife to continue in her role and throws the presidential elections, scheduled for October 2011, wide open. “There’s an atmosphere of uncertainty about what will happen,” explains Miguel de Luca, president of the Argentinean Society of Political Analysis. “There’s a new presidential election very soon. And there was speculation that Néstor Kirchner would stand for the Partido Justicialista (PJ) as one of the main candidates.”
Whilst Kirchner kept quiet about his ambitions, it was no secret he intended to stand again in 2011 as the presidential couple looked set to dominate politics for years to come by avoiding laws curtailing presidents to two consecutive terms. The Kirchners had manufactured an almost cultish following under the populist Peronist umbrella. And the newspapers were obsessed by a power couple they’d nicknamed “los K”, frequently referring to them as one: “el matrimonio Kirchner” (the Kirchner marital couple).
“The way the Kirchners acted [in public life] was complementary,” continues de Luca. Yet this rock-solid partnership has crumbled with the sudden disappearance of the man who put Cristina forward as a presidential candidate in 2007. Despite yesterday’s condolences and show of political unity, Kirchner’s death could further splinter the country’s already fragmented politics. Kirchner had always been a major unifying force, lurking behind the scenes during his wife’s presidency, heading up the PJ and recently elected president of UNASUR, the regional power bloc.
“One of Kirchner’s defining characteristics was the concentration of power,” de Luca concludes. “With his death, the political landscape is completely open.” Argentina has lost a key figurehead and a formidable husband-wife political dynasty. Cristina’s days in power may be numbered.