Former President Nestor Kirchner, who steered Argentina out of crisis and political instability with a leftist populism that thrilled the poor and exasperated the wealthy, died suddenly of a heart attack on Wednesday with his wife, President Cristina Fernandez, by his side.
His death, at 60, abruptly ends a plan the couple had to keep succeeding each other and holding onto power for many years. With 2011's elections looming, Fernandez will have to run for re-election without her closest adviser, the charismatic party leader who kept a tight lid on the country's unruly political scene. Kirchner had a history of heart trouble, undergoing emergency surgery on his carotid artery in February and an angioplasty in September, but refused to slow down, campaigning daily to lay the political groundwork for elections in which he said that either he or his wife would run again for the presidency.
He suffered another heart attack early on Wednesday and was pronounced dead at 9:15 a.m. after efforts to revive him failed, a presidential spokesman said.
The news shocked Argentines, who turned out by the thousands in Kirchner's honor, filling the Plaza de Mayo outside the presidential palace on Wednesday night.
"He's someone who for the first time in our democracy, turned his politics toward the workers and the people. That's why so many are here. The plaza shows that the people will support and deepen his model," said Juan Pablo Mazzieri, 39. Fernandez, he added, "has the capacity to go it alone with all the people's support." But Kirchner's death leaves a gaping hole in Argentine politics. While Fernandez is a powerful figure in her own right, Kirchner was seen as the heir to Argentine.
Gen. Juan Domingo Peron, the legendary strongman whose advocacy for workers brought a generations into the middle class. Also like Peron, he tolerated few challengers, keeping in check the nation's labor unions, activist groups, governors and mayors - political players who move thousands of voters and whose allegiance is vital to maintaining public order. One of Kirchner's latest campaign promises was to support a labor movement effort to require all large businesses to open their books to the unions and turn 10 percent of their profits over to the workers. Giving them half the profits would be better still, he suggested at a political rally.
"After Peron and Eva Peron, nobody has done so much for the workers as Nestor Kirchner," said Hugo Moyano, Argentina's most powerful union leader, who now doubles as a Peronist party leader in Buenos Aires province. Kirchner was governor of a thinly populated southern state when he was pulled from relative obscurity to become a presidential candidate in 2003, a time when Argentina was struggling to emerge from a devastating economic crisis. He captured just 22 per cent of a first-round vote despite the outgoing president's support, and took office after his rival then dropped out.
Within just a few years, he had reestablished Argentina's all-powerful presidency and become a major figure in Latin American politics, abandoning the "Washington consensus" of tight fiscal policies and free trade, isolating the country from foreign debt markets and imposing stringent controls on the flow of money and goods in and out of the country.
Argentina's economy grew by more than 8 per cent a year during his presidency, enabling him to cancel most of the country's world-record debt default and pay off $9 billion in loans from the International Monetary Fund, whose guidance he blamed for ruining economies around the globe.
Then, at the height of his popularity in 2007, he stepped aside, enabling his wife win election to succeed him and setting the stage for what many hoped or feared would be a leftist dynasty in which husband and wife would take turns as president on into the future, sidestepping constitutional limits on re-election. At the time, Kirchner joked that he would do nothing more than hang out in Buenos Aires' cafes. Instead, he and his wife worked together to increase their hold on Argentine society. Thanks to their political skills, Fernandez has been able to rule by decree for much of her presidency, despite losing majorities in Congress in midterm elections.
Without her husband, Fernandez is likely to face new threats from the left and right.
But Moyano, the nation's most powerful union leader, quickly fell into step, ordering an emergency meeting of the General Labor Confederation, or CGT, where he said union leaders would "express our total support for the tenure of Cristina Kirchner." Leftist activists also fell in behind the president. "We'll be demonstrating in the streets that we are millions who will replace Kirchner," said the leader of the Evita Movement, Emilio Persico. Within hours of his death, credit markets were betting that Argentina will be more trustworthy. The cost of buying insurance on Argentine debt dropped 0.5 per cent on Wednesday afternoon, according to CMA Datavision, and shares of Argentine-based companies trading in New York surged despite a broad retreat of US stocks. "The Kirchner family has been relatively tough for investors," explained Paul Herber, portfolio manager of the Forward Frontier Market Strat Fund, who said investors are hoping that without Kirchner, someone with more favorable policies toward investing may be elected in 2011.
Argentine analysts say, "That's a poor bet - that Fernandez's ability to govern through the Oct. 23 elections is not in doubt, and that at this point, no other candidate has emerged in the country's fractured politics who might beat her."
"I don't see any problems with her governability, let alone an institutional crisis," political analyst Ricardo Rouvier said. "This is an opportunity for her - to turn herself into a true political chief."
"This is a moment when Fernandez can distance herself from Moyano, who is capable of mobilizing thousands of workers in the streets and also holds the strategic position of party chief in Buenos Aires province, where most Argentines live. It also won't be easy to govern if she keeps openly confronting leading sectors of Argentina's economy, media companies and Catholic church", analyst Rosendo Fraga said.
"Cristina isn't just Kirchner's widow - she's a key political leader. She was a senator, has great political experience and this all speaks for continuity," said Edgardo Mocca, a political scientist at the University of Buenos Aires. But she'll need all this and more to confront what's coming without her husband's help, he agreed. "What's coming is a strong destabilizing pressure from leading media companies and center-right political sectors," Mocca said. Kirchner also served as a congressman, leader of the leftist wing of the Peronist party and secretary general of the South American alliance known as Unasur, a role that made him an ideal figure to mediate a recent dispute between Venezuela and Colombia. Both countries' leaders mourned his loss on Wednesday, as did US President Barack Obama, who praised Kirchner's significant roles in Argentina and Unasur.
Among the eulogies, many fellow leaders praised his advocacy of human rights _ a pillar of the Kirchners' rule. He reinvigorated trials for those responsible for crimes against humanity during Argentina's 1976-1983 dictatorship. Congress and then the Supreme Court, whose independence he promoted, annulled the previous decades' amnesty laws. About 20 trials involving.