In her first address to the Argentinean people following the sudden death of her husband and political cohort Néstor in October 2010, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner clarified that she was not living the hardest moment of her life, but rather the most painful. The point was to correct critics who had suggested that her political leadership would wane with her husband’s death.
The woman known only as Cristina was right: her popularity soared a few days after Néstor Kirchner’s passing. But 2011 will test whether she benefited from fleeting sympathy or whether she will be able to stand as a political figure in her own right.
Before Néstor’s unexpected death from a heart-attack there was wide speculation that the ex-president would run in October’s presidential elections, turning the Kirchner marriage into an alternating power duo that earned them Clinton comparisons. Néstor was credited with saving Argentina from the epic financial meltdown of 2001/2002 but his confrontational style of politics was wearing thin – he had become increasingly unpopular among the middle-class and even key figures in his own party.
Since his death, however, Cristina has begun giving clear signs that she can move away from the more incendiary tone of her husband’s unique brand of hybrid “Peronist-populist-leftist politics”, and steer the country towards a more conciliatory position with foreign creditors.
On the political front, the tensions within her Peronista party – the Partido Justicialista (PJ) – have slowly given way, as well. If Cristina can capitalise on the temporary lull in internal dissent, she can look ahead at a well-paved road to re-election. She will have to contend with the rising popularity of Daniel Scioli – governor of Argentina’s Buenos Aires province and PJ president – but mounting pressures within the party itself seem to be forcing him to support her.
Also in her favour is a weak, disoriented opposition – and high public spending. An increase in world demand for soy beans and meat, Argentina’s two main exports, ensure that the economy is set to continue its steady growth. Additionally, Argentineans are counting on neighbouring Brazil’s stellar performance to sweep their economy further along.
For Cristina, winning the presidency as a widow might not be too difficult, but could be far from fun. “She is likely to face opposition from all flanks. And because she will be running a country that is not in crisis, she will have no one to blame if things don’t turn out well,” says Javier Corrales, a professor at Amherst College in the US.
As a mournful Cristina ended her brief statement to the nation, she extended a heartfelt thank you to the thousands of young Argentineans who had travelled the country to give her beloved husband a final goodbye. It underscored another unforeseen effect of Néstor’a death: the support of a new, young and vibrant electorate for the Kirchners. Her most painful moment suddenly appeared to usher in what may be her most popular one.