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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Kirchner Style

Combative style paved way for powerful dynasty
By John Paul Rathbone in London
Published: October 27 2010 19:34 | Last updated: October 27 2010 19:34
Néstor Kirchner, the former Argentine president who, with his wife, formed what many called the country’s most powerful political dynasty since Juan and Evita Perón, died on Wednesday from a heart attack. He was 60.

The son of a post office official, he first tasted power as mayor and then governor of Santa Cruz, a distant southern province closer to the Antarctic than the capital. Paradoxically, this obscurity served him well. In 2003, shortly after the country defaulted on $100bn of foreign debt, Mr Kirchner ran for the presidency as a fresh face who could promise voters he would “renew the political culture” and cleanse it of corruption.

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His inauguration that May gave the nation a taste of Mr Kirchner’s typical aggression. Tall and lanky with a lazy eye, speech impediment and a nose like a hawk’s beak, Mr Kirchner sported a Band-Aid on his face after being cut by a camera while, in typical “K Style”, wading through chaotic crowds.

Mr Kirchner, whose closest supporters, many of whom followed him to Buenos Aires from Santa Cruz and were known as “penguins”, negotiated one of the most punitive debt restructurings in history – offering international creditors about 30 cents on the dollar. He clashed frequently with the International Monetary Fund and foreign companies, exhorting Argentines in one example in 2005 to boycott Shell petrol stations after the oil company raised prices.

After the international humiliation of the debt default, this approach won him popularity at home. Just 100 days into his presidency, he became the most popular president in Argentine history.

But his heterodox economic approach, which included price controls and the “smart populism” of targeted spending at urban classes, and which he continued in 2007 from behind the scenes when his wife Cristina Fernández won the presidency, left a mixed record. In their back-to-back tenures, the Kirchners increased state control of the economy, muzzled the press and intervened in financial and commodity markets, but international investment fell.

High initial growth was followed by high inflation and, in congressional elections in 2009, Mr Kirchner lost office to an opponent from an anti-Kirchner faction of the Peronist party, because of rising crime, corruption and a battle with farmers over export taxes. However, an economic recovery this year, thanks in large part to rising commodity prices and the boom in neighbouring Brazil, saw approval ratings for his wife’s presidency, and his own popularity by association, recover from lows of about 20 per cent.

Alongside his wife, who was expected to try to return the presidential baton to her husband in the 2011 election, he was often associated with the “new left” in Latin America. He was a close ally of Hugo Chávez, the radical president of Venezuela, and once thundered that “no way in hell” would Argentina return to the IMF after the country paid off its $10bn debt in 2006.

Yet, like Ms Fernández, he occupied a hazier middle political ground that was always pragmatic – critics said venal – more than ideological. This year, Argentina made overtures to repair relations with both the IMF and international creditors after negotiating a deal with holdouts who never accepted the original terms of his 30 cents on the dollar restructuring deal.

Mr Kirchner underwent surgery twice this year, treating physical debilities that stood in contrast to his robust attitudes. “What stands out is the solidity of his convictions, which were not always backed by the majority of people but were always firm, clear and at times even aggressive,” commented Antonio Cafiero, a minister under Peron, who added that Mr K’s style “wasn’t always the best”.

“We have lost a good Argentine, a politician to his fingertips; a true, astute, combative politician who never hid his convictions . . . and who has left his mark on national life.”

He is survived by his wife and two children.