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First couple’s dynasty at risk in Argentina vote

Early vote counting put Argentina’s first couple in a tough fight for their political survival in elections that threatened to erode President Cristina Fernandez’s congressional majorities and seal the fate of one of the country’s biggest political dynasties.

world Updated: Jun 29, 2009 11:31 IST

Early vote counting put Argentina’s first couple in a tough fight for their political survival in elections that threatened to erode President Cristina Fernandez’s congressional majorities and seal the fate of one of the country’s biggest political dynasties.

Even the popular former President Nestor Kirchner, Fernandez’s husband and predecessor, was trailing late Sunday in his bid for a seat from Buenos Aires province.

With 21 percent of the votes counted, Kirchner had just 31.9 per cent to 35.1 per cent for Francisco De Narvaez of the Union Pro alliance, a charismatic millionaire and sitting congressman who is part of an anti-Fernandez faction in the president’s Peronist party that has been growing in the legislature.

Fernandez- and Kirchner-allied candidates were also behind in key races in the city of Buenos Aires and Cordoba and Santa Fe provinces.

“With these results ... the ruling party would lose control of the Chamber of Deputies, and the Senate is also at risk,” analyst Rosendo Fraga told news channel Todo Noticias.

Allies of Fernandez and Kirchner have controlled Congress for six years, but before the vote analysts predicted they could lose two dozen seats in both chambers, hurting their ability to push through legislation and damaging their brand as their Peronist party seeks direction ahead of 2011’s presidential race.

Kirchner cast his congressional race and the election as a whole as a referendum on his wife’s tenure and is thought to have seen the seat as a launching pad for his own return to the presidency.

“Argentina is at a decisive moment to continue the country’s transformation,” Kirchner said to a sea of reporters earlier Sunday after casting his vote. Fernandez voted 1,700 miles (2,800 kilometers) away in her home city of Rio Gallegos.

A Kirchner loss would weaken Fernandez’s government, diluting her authority and kicking off a power struggle within party ranks, Daniel Kerner, Latin America analyst for Eurasia Group, wrote in a research note last week.

It could also jeopardize Kirchner’s leadership of the Peronist party, a position he has held since Fernandez succeeded him as president in 2007.

While supporters once praised Fernandez and her husband for slashing unemployment with public works programs that jump-started Argentina’s battered economy, opponents and analysts now cast the couple as authoritarian and unwilling to compromise.

“Their overall nature is too much intervention,” said Alberto Ramos, senior Latin America economist for the Goldman Sachs investment firm. “It’s not going to put Argentina on a crash course, but it is a story about growing inefficiencies and increasingly autocratic management.”

The Kirchners’ problems have also “gone beyond substance to style,” Ramos said. “They’re very confrontational and stubborn: It’s all or nothing, and they’d prefer to break rather than bend. People have gotten disenchanted with that.”

Fernandez’s approval rating tumbled to 29 percent this year after a four-month standoff over export taxes with Argentina’s powerful farm sector. She has extended price caps, nationalized $23 billion in pensions and taken over the country’s biggest airline in a bid to boost the state’s role in the economy.

“I’d like the government to be somewhat weakened by this election,” said Alejandro Siniscalco, 41, after casting his ballot in the middle-class Buenos Aires neighborhood of Caballito. “Many things aren’t being done well, and we need to put a brake on the government in congress.”

The government moved up Sunday’s vote, originally set for October, in a step that critics said was meant to poll voters before the global economic crisis took a bigger toll on Argentina. Growth fell to 2 per cent in the first quarter, its slowest since the economy collapsed in 2002, and annual inflation officially dipped to 5.5 percent in May, although most independent economists believe the actual figure tops 15 per cent.

Kirchner argued that a win for his coalition was necessary to protect the economy, reminding voters of his success in bringing the country back from collapse during his 2003-07 administration.

“We have to stand by this model; it’s us or chaos,” he said at a May 30 rally.

Despite the implications for the first couple’s political future, analysts agreed that the results of Sunday’s vote were unlikely to change the president’s policies. Fernandez retains decree powers, and is unlikely to back off her convictions, Kerner and Ramos said.

Half the country’s 256-member Chamber of Deputies and one-third of the 72-member Senate were at stake.