The Economist has a piece on Argentina's president Cristina Fernández, an X-ray on her character, reactions, but also strong points, and what can be expected of what is left of her mandate that ends in December 2015. Even with her clout dwindling Cristina Fernández remains the most powerful politician of Argentina.
Follows the article under the heading of: 'The CFK psychodrama'
Years ago, at a dinner in the Argentine presidential residence on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, a quarrel broke out between then president Néstor Kirchner and one of his senior ministers. Deeply offended, the minister left the palace only to be detained at the gates on “orders from the president”. Minutes later Kirchner appeared in a golf cart, urging the minister to come back and finish dinner. He hesitantly conceded but when he retook his seat, the president’s wife, then-senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, stopped him, stating icily: “He who stands up once from my table will never sit with us again.”
That sort of attitude rewards loyalty, not debate. Ms Fernández, who went from senator to president in 2007 and was re-elected in 2011, cannot run for office again next year. Economic problems and falling approval ratings have weakened her. But she remains Argentina’s most powerful politician and she cannot coast during the 20 months she has left in the presidential palace. The growth model that served the Kirchners well during the 2000s has run its course. The economy is widely expected to contract this year; inflation is forecast to exceed 35%; reserves have been falling.
Ms Fernández used to have a partner—a protector, even—to rely on. Until he died suddenly of a heart attack in 2010, Kirchner shielded her from trouble. “Do me a favor,” he would say to Ms Fernández’s ministers and political allies. “If you have bad news, bring it to me. Don’t tell Cristina.” In a rare interview with Jorge Rial, an Argentine gossip journalist, in September, she recounted: “[Néstor] had a protective instinct towards me…I would get annoyed with this and tell him ‘Don’t treat me as though I’m a child.’”
With Kirchner gone, Ms Fernández has got used to being in full control. Only a select few have the president’s ear. Some ministers speak only rarely with her, otherwise working through her secretary. In matters of economics, her most marked weakness, the president relies heavily on Juan Carlos Fábrega, the governor of the Central Bank, and Axel Kicillof, her young and dogmatic economy minister. But Ms Fernández’s true inner circle now consists of only two people.
Since her husband’s death and the departure of Alberto Fernández (no relation), who was the Kirchners’ cabinet chief until he fell out with Ms Fernández in 2008, her closest adviser has been Carlos Zannini, her legal and technical secretary. Mr Zannini has kept his profile so low that few Argentines recognize his name. Those closer to him call him “El Chino” (the Chinaman), for his Maoist leanings during the 1970s.
Her only other confidant is her son, Máximo, a college dropout who lives in the far reaches of Patagonia, in the Kirchners’ home state. Although he holds no elected office, Máximo wields plenty of power as the founder and leader of La Cámpora, a political youth organization whose acolytes dot the boards of state-owned and private companies.
Those who know Ms Fernández commend her work ethic. She will often call provincial governors late at night on their mobile phones to ask about the minutiae of a report she has devoured. She is a fluent, if often aimless, orator, a skill she can use to shut down awkward debate. Joaquín Morales Solá, a political columnist for La Nación, a newspaper, remembers that during one interview, he was only able to slip in two questions in an hour and a half. The need to control extends to her image. She never appears in public without looking glammed up, once joking: “I was born in make-up.”
Prada and progressivism
Yet if Ms Fernández is indisputably in charge, Néstor’s words still resonate. The impression remains of someone who would prefer to avoid bad news than confront it. On the toughest problems facing Argentina, the president largely remains mum. In her most recent speech to Congress, which lasted almost three hours, she conspicuously avoided mentioning inflation and insecurity—the two problems of most concern to Argentines today. “She believes that if she doesn’t address it, it won’t get worse,” explains Mr Fernández, the former cabinet chief.
Reversing course is also not part of the president’s style. The word “mistake” is not in her vocabulary. That, many speculate, is why she has not yet dismissed Amado Boudou, her useless vice-president. “Narcissism drives her more than reality,” says Mr Morales Solá. “To her, recognizing errors is to admit weakness.” Ms Fernández is also a genuine believer in Kirchnerismo. “She truly buys her own dogma,” says Mr Fernández. “She is convinced that she’s the protagonist of her own revolution.” The ends of this revolution are more social inclusion; the means include raising trade barriers, persecuting big business, and doling out subsidies.
That credo works for as long as there is money. Since the start of the year, with the commodity super-cycle slowing and foreign-exchange reserves dwindling, the president has had to become more pragmatic. In January Mr. Fábrega convinced her to devalue the peso by 15% in two days—a thing she’d pledged never to do. “Those wanting a devaluation will have to wait for another government,” she had insisted eight months before. The Central Bank also raised interest rates in an attempt to contain inflation. That has caused the economy to slow sharply.
Ms Fernández saved face by blaming speculators. But there have been other signs of pragmatism: compensation for Repsol, the Spanish firm whose controlling stake in YPF, the state oil firm, was nationalized in 2012; new and more credible inflation data; a cut in water and gas subsidies; and a friendlier relationship with Jorge Bergoglio, the one-time archbishop of Buenos Aires now known as Pope Francis.
This halting move towards orthodoxy is set to be the defining feature of Ms Fernández’s remaining time in office. It is not in her nature to execute a bold U-turn; and there is no one in her inner circle urging her to do so. She will do what she needs to in order to prevent the economy from collapsing, but not enough to grasp the nettle of Argentina’s problems. That task will fall to her successor.
What Ms Fernández hopes to do after leaving power is not clear. Her cranial surgery in 2013 may have changed her plans. According to a former government minister, “having recognized that what happened to Néstor could happen to her,” she is more concerned than before to spend time with her family. But she will want to conserve influence, if only to stop her enemies investigating allegations of money-laundering and corruption within her circle. Ms Fernández has been loth to pick a presidential heir for fear that he eclipse her own authority. It is not clear how much the potential candidates crave her endorsement. The president who once aspired to run for a third term retains power, but it is draining away.