As elections go, this one should have been billed as Queen Cristina and the Dozen Dwarfs. Almost from the moment in July when Argentina's outgoing president Néstor Kirchner anointed his wife-cum-senator Cristina Fernández as his designated successor in the upcoming national elections, the country's First Lady began jetting to foreign capitals to meet with chiefs of state and generally conducted herself as if the actual balloting on Oct. 28 would be a mere formality. The opinion polls unanimously predicted an easy win for Fernández (who follows the regional tradition of keeping her own name) despite the crowded field of 13 candidates, and the vote-counting on Sunday evening produced no surprises: with just over 96 percent of the voting precincts reporting, Fernández had garnered nearly 45 percent of the ballots cast, almost double the amount received by the runner-up candidate and enough under Argentine law to avert a second-round runoff. "We have won amply," declared Fernández, dressed in a white floral print dress and white leather belt, as her beaming husband stood behind her. "But rather than giving us privileges, this puts us in a position of greater responsibility."
You can say that again, Mrs. President-Elect. The 54-year-old brunette's cakewalk to the presidency will fast become a distant memory after she receives the azure-and-white sash from the hands of her husband in December. The first woman to be elected president of Argentina in her own right stands to inherit a hornet's nest of economic ills and credibility gaps that Néstor Kirchner managed to keep a lid on but never fully resolved. The robust growth of the Argentine economy that stamped his four-year term in office is expected to slow down to a 6 percent rise in the gross domestic product in 2008. No one outside the government swallows the official single-digit annualized inflation rates claimed by Kirchner, and some economists warn that the real cost of living may have risen by as much as 20 percent by the end of this year. Recurring energy shortages will likely worsen within weeks of her inauguration, as electricity consumption rates soar with the onset of the muggy Southern Hemisphere summer in late December. "A lot of things have been kicked forward to 2008, and there will be some very serious economic and financial problems awaiting her," says Riordan Roett, the director of Western Hemisphere Studies at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS). "She'll face some tough decisions."
One of the biggest challenges confronting Presidenta Fernández will be the need to create an attractive climate for foreign and domestic investors. The Kirchner years will be remembered for Argentina's extraordinary recovery from the economic meltdown of 2001-2. But the abrasive Peronist leader also alienated prospective investors through the freezing of utility rates, which hit hard several privatized companies, the take-it-or-leave-it discounts on Argentine bonds that Kirchner presented to the country's creditors in 2003, and his propensity to single out multinational corporations like Shell for a round of presidential tongue-lashing. A recent report by five respected Argentine economists blamed his government's policies for an estimated annual loss of $6 billion in potential foreign investment. "The rate of internal savings has risen with the economic recovery of the past four years, but investment levels continue to be very low," notes Jorge Colina, chief economic researcher at the Buenos Aires-based Institute for the Social Development of Argentina. "The investment that does take place is short-term, because no one knows what will be the policy stances of the government in three years' time."
On the campaign trail Fernández offered few specifics about the main thrust of her economic policy beyond promises to generate more jobs and build new schools, hospitals and highways. But she will clearly give far more priority to foreign affairs than her provincial husband ever did. The rumpled, plain-spoken Kirchner often skipped top-level regional parleys, no-showed at a state dinner he was scheduled to host for the visiting president of Vietnam and kept Hewlett-Packard's Carly Fiorina waiting outside his office for 45 minutes before the CEO stormed out of the Pink House in downtown Buenos Aires. His glamorous wife, by contrast, clearly relishes the limelight of international summitry and hobnobbing with famous intellectuals and human rights activists. But Fernández will adhere to the substance of Kirchner's foreign policy and preserve his close ties to leftist leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales. "She represents a drastic change in diplomatic style from her husband, who rejected the rulebook of international relations," says Argentine political analyst Rosendo Fraga. "But the central tenets of foreign policy will be maintained."
And what shall become of the wall-eyed veteran of Argentine politics who presided over some of the most bountiful times in the country's modern history? Néstor Kirchner says he's looking forward to the role of First Gentleman, but he won't be idling away the coming years on some ranch in the Argentine pampa. The conventional wisdom in Buenos Aires says that Kirchner is planning another run for the presidency in 2011 as part of a tag-team strategy that would see the couple switch places in power through the year 2019. (Under Argentine law, presidents can run again for the office after a four-year break, meaning that Fernández would also be eligible to run for a second four-year term in 2015.) For the time being, say some observers, Kirchner will likely concentrate on cultivating the government's ties with the country's provincial governors and the Peronist party while Fernández tries to burnish Argentina's reputation abroad. But given their countrymen's notoriously wild mood swings about their leaders, the Kirchners could find themselves ticketed for retirement from politics by the time Fernández finishes her four-year term. "They work very closely together, and she clearly has his interests in mind," says SAIS professor Roett. "But four years is a long time in that country, and there are no guarantees in Argentine politics." For now, though, Fernández's reign seems secure.