“It’s not the time to talk about candidacies,” proclaimed Argentina’s interior minister just two days after former president Néstor Kirchner died of a heart attack on Oct. 27. But already, with this sudden passing of the country’s most influential politician, the question on everyone’s mind was the political future of the current president: Néstor’s wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
The Kirchners have run Argentina since 2003, when Néstor came to power after governing the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz. A tough kid from the provinces, he was credited with stabilizing the country’s broken economy after the 1999-2002 economic and social crisis, when unemployment peaked at 21 per cent. With his program of debt restructuring, he managed to pay back US$9.8 billion to the IMF, and oversaw a period of economic growth. Focusing on accountability, he also overturned amnesty laws that protected military officials who had been accused of human rights violations during the country’s 1976-1983 dictatorship, resulting in a slew of prosecutions.
In 2007, after one term in office, Néstor stepped aside to allow Cristina to run for president, but he retained a key behind-the-scenes role. He led the ruling Peronist movement, handled relations with governors and unions, and was the architect of the country’s economic policy. Many observed that while Cristina—a senator for many years and an experienced politician in her own right—was the public face of the presidential couple, he was the ruler of Argentina.
With Cristina’s first term ending next year, Néstor was believed to be preparing for a second run at the presidency, part of what some described as the couple’s leap-frog strategy to maintain long-term power in Argentina (the country has a two-consecutive-term limit for the presidency). In her first public speech after her husband’s death last week, Cristina signalled that she planned no policy changes, and that she would honour Néstor’s “memory and his government, which transformed this country.” But her political prospects are far from certain. “There’s either going to be a great wave of sympathy for Cristina that will sweep her into office in the elections next year,” says Riordan Roett, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University specializing in Latin America, “or, after a short period of mourning, there’s going to be growing tension within the Peronist party, which is a very fractious organization, divided into pro-Kirchner and anti-Kirchner factions.”
Cristina’s key challenge will be demonstrating that she can rule over that fractious political system in the absence of her husband. Although she kept most of her husband’s senior advisers and continued many of his policies, some speculate that she lacks the political skill to rule without her lifelong personal and political companion, whom she met in university.
Should she chose to run for a second term in 2011, her main competitor may be Daniel Scioli, the governor of Buenos Aires province, who has signalled that he might enter the race. But the new widow could also put to rest the Kirchner dynasty with her husband’s passing. As Roett says, “At the end of the day, Cristina may decide she’s done her four years, her husband’s legacy is secure, and she’ll retire.”