Argentina's political power couple echo Clintons

A distant figure looms over Sen. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the likely winner of Sunday's presidential election here. And it isn't her husband, Nestor, Argentina's current president, nor even the legendary Eva Peron.

Shadowing Sen. Kirchner, 54, as she completes an extraordinary bid to succeed her husband and become this country's first elected female president, is U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, who is mounting her own presidential effort thousands of miles to the north.

Comparisons between the current and former first ladies have become a staple of the campaign. Both are lawyers who met their future husbands in college. Both married former Southern governors who became presidents and presided over remarkable economic booms. Both are political celebrities instantly recognized by their iconic first names.

"Her model is not Evita. Her model is Hillary," says Rosendo Fraga, director of the Center for Studies of the New Majority, an independent research group.

That may be an overstatement. The two powerful female politicians share as many differences as similarities. "Queen Cristina," as she is known, has a personal style that bears little resemblance to that of the junior senator from New York. Her attention to physical appearance has prompted repeated "Botox" gibes from the news media and her leading opponent. Her passionate speaking style is far removed from Clinton's coolly rational delivery.

Sen. Kirchner, whom polls show with an enormous lead over a splintered opposition, also has noted publicly that unlike Hillary Clinton, she was a prominent legislator before her husband entered the Casa Rosada, Argentina's presidential mansion. No single issue is associated with Kirchner's rise in the way that Clinton is linked with health care reform. But the Argentine senator has spoken out against political corruption and in defense of victims of the 1976-1983 Argentine military dictatorship that killed or "disappeared" up to 30,000 people, and she has been an influential adviser to her husband.

Threats to economic revival

Far more than Clinton, who campaigns on her record in the U.S. Senate, Kirchner's candidacy rests almost entirely upon her husband's achievements in steering Argentina through an economic contraction equivalent to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Relying on sometimes unorthodox policies, including price controls and export taxes, Nestor Kirchner quarterbacked an economic revival after the country's 2002 default that defied conventional economic wisdom. He restructured much of the country's debt, paid off its International Monetary Fund loans — aided by the proceeds of bond sales to the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — and capitalized upon high prices for the country's chief exports, soybeans and grain.

"He's the best president we've had. … It's much better today than it was before. I'm much better off," says Manuel Ragno, 61, who runs a lottery kiosk in the working-class La Boca neighborhood.

Still, there are indications that Argentina's strong expansion — five consecutive years of roughly 8% annual growth rates — is beginning to hit limits. This year, as the unprecedented husband-to-wife presidential handoff neared, the government ate into its fiscal surplus by sharply increasing social spending on new pensions and public works. If elected, Cristina Kirchner, who lacks experience as an executive, will inherit double-digit inflation and energy shortages that will be difficult to resolve without modifying her husband's policies. Another test is the need to conclude a deal with the Paris Club of creditor nations to reschedule payments on $6 billion in Argentine bonds, included in the default.

The Peronist movement that both Kirchners joined in the 1970s always has been a difficult-to-categorize amalgam of left- and right-wing policies. Juan Peron, a former Army officer elected president in 1946, was an acknowledged admirer of Italy's fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, but pursued pro-labor policies favoring Argentina's poor, the descamisados or "shirtless ones."

So ideology is not a bar to significant course corrections if needed to maintain political power. Kirchner, however, has given no sign of any intention to change course, and she clearly shares her husband's view of the need for strong state action to compensate for the market's failings. Her ubiquitous campaign posters carry an inoffensive, and imprecise, promise: "We know what is missing. We know how to get it done."

Mercedes Marco del Pont, a Yale-educated senate candidate, says Kirchner would largely continue the current state-centric economic policies but would "intervene more intelligently in the market." A member of Kirchner's "Front for Victory" coalition, Marco del Pont praises her intelligence and principles. "She has very strong convictions about what needs to be done in Argentina," she says.

Above-the-fray campaign style

Since declaring for the presidency in July, candidate Kirchner has shared with voters few details of her plans. She grants almost no interviews to local journalists, a tactic she has copied from her husband. (She also declined to be interviewed for this story.) Unlike Clinton, who has weathered a blizzard of debates with other potential Democratic nominees and spent months in the early primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, Kirchner was tapped as the Front for Victory nominee by her husband.

Last week her above-the-fray campaign style was on display at a rally in Vicente Lopez on the capital's outskirts. Several hundred people filled the narrow street outside the Santa Rosa hospital to see Kirchner accept a small bouquet of flowers and greet them with a warm: "Gracias, mis amores." (Thank you, my loved ones.)

The candidate spoke from the podium for 12 minutes and offered no specific policy comments. "We need to focus on the things that unite us so we can move the country forward. … There's still a lot to be done. We have to work very hard for those who don't have jobs and for those who don't have homes," she said to applause.

Later, as she shook hands with well-wishers, several voters praised the government's economic record and maintained that the senator's gender was of little interest. Ambitious women in politics are nothing new here. By law, one-half of the House and one-third of the Senate seats must be filled by women. The Peronist movement the Kirchners lead has a long tradition of powerful women, from Eva Peron ("Evita") in the 1940s to Isabel Peron, dictator Juan Peron's third wife, who assumed power after his death in 1974.

"We don't think of her being a woman. She's a strong person, and we've had plenty of men who've failed in the presidency," said Hector Larretape, 60, a worker in a steel mill who attended the rally outside the hospital.

Nestor Kirchner, a provincial leader with little national reputation, rose to the presidency after a remarkable series of such presidential failures. During the Argentine financial crisis of 2001-02, after the country was forced to abandon its policy of pegging the peso to the dollar on a 1-to-1 basis, Argentina had five presidents in as many days. In the 2003 elections, Kirchner won 22% of the vote in the first round, trailing Carlos Menem, a deeply unpopular former chief executive attempting a comeback. When Menem withdrew rather than suffer an expected second-round shellacking, Kirchner became president.

Kirchner could have run for re-election, but he chose to step down and focus on party-building, while preserving the option to return to power after his wife serves four or eight years. Argentina's constitution limits presidents to two consecutive terms, but permits an unlimited number of non-consecutive terms. Some analysts, such as Fraga, believe the couple intend to govern for years.

More global interests than husband

If he does hand the presidency to his wife, the biggest change likely will be in Argentina's global image. In four years as president, Nestor Kirchner has paid little attention to international relations, even eschewing the diplomatic custom of receiving newly arrived ambassadors in Buenos Aires. His wife, who has traveled to the United States and Europe during the campaign, is described as far more attentive to foreign constituencies.

Cristina Kirchner has publicly predicted that Hillary Clinton, whom she last met in 2004 in Boston, will be the next U.S. president. Assuming she's correct, with new female leaders in Washington and Buenos Aires, there may be an opportunity for U.S.-Argentine relations to improve. Hopes here for better bilateral ties were fanned by a Clinton essay in the forthcoming issue of Foreign Affairs, in which she says the U.S. should "deepen economic and strategic cooperation with Argentina."

The Bush administration has been put off by Nestor Kirchner's ardent populism and coziness with Chavez. In addition to buying Argentine bonds, Venezuela has pledged to fund part of a natural gas plant to help address Argentina's energy shortage. For his part, Kirchner supports Venezuela's bid to join Mercosur, a four-nation South American trade group. During the 2005 Summit of the Americas that Kirchner hosted at a seaside resort, Chavez was allowed to lead an anti-U.S. rally in a nearby soccer stadium where he pronounced "dead" a regional trade pact sought by the U.S. president. Earlier this month, Nestor Kirchner was conspicuously absent from a list of "responsible democratic leaders" in Latin America that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cited in a Washington speech to the Organization of American States.

Still, some are skeptical of the prospects for real change. "There's a lot of talk that if she wins, she and Hillary are going to have a love fest. Hillary Clinton will neither have the time nor interest in the kind of things Cristina Kirchner is interested in," said Riordan Roett, a Latin America specialist at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies.

In New York recently, Kirchner outlined her philosophy in a speech to the Council of the Americas, a business group whose board of directors includes representatives of JPMorgan, Merrill Lynch, IBM and Merck. She boasted of the country's progress under her husband's administration and said that if Argentina grows as expected next year it will mark six consecutive years of expansion for the first time in almost 200 years. And she reiterated a governing philosophy with a Peronist tinge: "Economics is not an exact science as some people believe — it's profoundly social."