EVENT: Senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's presidential candidacy was formally announced on July 1.
SIGNIFICANCE: The timing of the long-expected announcement raises doubts over the government's strategy, as well as the shape of the future government and proposed role of outgoing President Nestor Kirchner.
ANALYSIS: The confirmation on July 1 that Senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner would be the government's candidate in the October 28 presidential election ended lengthy speculation as to whether President Nestor Kirchner would opt for this approach or choose instead to stand for a second term, given his higher approval ratings. Her candidacy has generally appeared the stronger option:
• Although Kirchner's voting intentions remain several points higher, four recent polls give her voting intentions of between 46-48%, with her nearest rivals, centre-left candidates Elisa Carrio and Roberto Lavagna, failing to reach 13% in any survey. A first-round victory requires 45% of the vote, or 40% with a ten-point margin over the second-placed candidate.
• Kirchner has seen his approval ratings fall, from a high of over 80% to 52% in June, and his image has lost some lustre as a result of increasing concerns over the economy, energy and corruption claims.
• Most importantly, Kirchner's decision not to seek a second consecutive term reduces the risk that he would rapidly become a 'lame duck' post-election and his influence would be diminished by the rise of potential successors -- as well as opening the possibility that he could seek a new term in 2011.
Nevertheless, the timing of the announcement, which had not been expected before late July, suggests that the government was forced by recent electoral reverses to bring it forward. This may reflect a desire to distance the consolidation of Fernandez de Kirchner's candidacy from another likely electoral defeat, in Santa Fe province on September 2, as well as to recapture public attention now increasingly focused on the incoming mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri (and, possibly, to try to provoke him into announcing a premature and ill-advised presidential bid). However, the early announcement will expose Fernandez de Kirchner to a lengthy campaign even as the government's popularity is waning.
Pyrrhic victory? Despite the difficulties posed by the long campaign, Fernandez de Kirchner's victory is virtually assured:
• Economy. Although prospects are declining, four years of strong growth, falling unemployment and the recovery of a degree of political and economic stability will favour a large pro-government vote.
• Opposition. The opposition is badly divided, with no prospect of a consensus candidate. No candidate has proposed real alternatives to government policies, limiting themselves primarily to criticising a record that up until now has proved largely successful. Although members of the opposition have expressed optimism over prospects for a second round, the current differential between Fernandez de Kirchner and other candidates looks difficult to reduce -- in particular given that, with such a large advantage, she will be unlikely to engage in public debates that could expose weaknesses.
• Triumphalism. The concept that the government candidate is unbeatable has been largely assumed, and many voters will be drawn to backing the winning candidate (a tendency reinforced by the government's ability to dispense patronage and the assumption that more will be forthcoming). This is particularly the case among members of the governing Peronist party.
However, although the Peronist party will provide its electoral support, its subsequent backing for the government is far less certain. Fernandez de Kirchner has a hostile relationship with her party's institutions, in particular the trade union movement and Peronist congressional bloc, from which she was expelled in 1995. This will not be helped by the fact that her vice-presidential running mate, Mendoza Governor Julio Cobos, is a member of the Radical party.
Kirchner role. Institutional relations with the Peronist party may be a focus for Kirchner's political activity after leaving office, currently the subject of much speculation. The president himself has spoken of seeking to renovate the party with a view to converting it into a centre-left force -- something he has failed to do while in office. This would likely require Kirchner to seek the presidency of the party (which currently has no elected authorities), which would generate stiff opposition from a range of other Peronist leaders prepared to form at least a temporary alliance to resist this.
Kirchner's post-election role is likely to generate frictions more generally, given widespread fears that his wife's candidacy is designed to guarantee their long-term hold on power (in theory, they could alternate mandates for some years, though in practice economic and political realities will intervene). Although there is no constitutional impediment to the president being succeeded by his or her spouse, the sense that a 'monarchy' could be imposed will make public opinion quick to seize on any shortcomings, and any attempt to construct a long-term power structure is likely to be truncated.
Future government. Campaign posters for Fernandez de Kirchner have announced that "the change is just beginning", while Kirchner has said that she will dedicate her efforts to strengthening institutions. The candidate herself has thus far remained silent. However, her legislative record -- she firmly sought to limit executive power while others were in office, but has strongly supported moves by Kirchner's government to extend it -- suggests little prospect of change or institutional strengthening. Moreover, her lack of executive experience is the subject of speculation. However, some theories as to the shape of her government can be framed:
• Cabinet. Most of Kirchner's current cabinet will be replaced (in particular, the widely questioned planning minister, Julio de Vido), with only Cabinet Chief Alberto Fernandez and Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana likely to remain. This will present the opportunity to improve the quality of a cabinet whose ministers have largely been subservient to the president and enjoy limited prestige.
• Foreign policy. As Fernandez de Kirchner's frequent overseas trips have illustrated, she will give greater priority to foreign policy. This can be expected to focus on improved relations with the United States (in particular if there is a Democratic president from 2009) and some cooling of the relationship with Venezuela. This may be welcomed by business but will be attacked as a shift to the Right by some pro-government sectors.
• Economy. Fernandez de Kirchner seemingly does not share her husband's taste for micromanaging economic policy. Depending on the identity of the new economy minister, this may prove positive, if it translates into greater autonomy. Some of the names that have been mooted, including former Central Bank head Mario Blejer (now director of the Bank of England's Centre for Central Banking Studies) or Bernardo Kosakoff of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America, could find strong support both internationally and among the business community.