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Argentine president Cristina Fernández is to have an operation to remove blood accumulated in her skull
It was a small but telling sign that even as Amado Boudou, Argentina’s acting president, reassured the nation on Monday that Cristina Fernández needed only rest, Argentina’s actual president was speeding off to hospital for a crucial operation.
Even so, the 60-year-old leader’s delicate health has exposed the institutional fragility of her highly centralised regime, where power is concentrated among a coterie of loyal advisers, and underlined the limits of her ability to govern – even as Argentina faces a crescendo of economic problems that need to be addressed.
“It feels like the beginning of the end,” said Walter Molano, strategist at BCP Securities and author of an Argentine economic history In the Land of Silver. “The economy is on a knife-edge; so too the population.”
Ms Fernández’s approval rating has sunk to 33.5 per cent as Argentines are fed up with inflation estimated at 25 per cent, foreign currency shortages, corruption scandals, administrative incompetence and sagging business confidence. Polls indicate the government could lose its Congressional majority at midterm elections on October 27.
“I can’t import oak barrels to mature my wine,” cries José Manuel Ortega, a fine winemaker, in exasperation. “Yet for every $1 of imported oak, I can export $15 of wine. Isn’t more exports exactly what the government wants?”
Ms Fernández’s aggressive political style has also damaged the country’s international standing. In addition to squabbling with its immediate neighbours, the government is fighting Repsol after it expropriated, so far without compensation, the Spanish oil company’s 51 per cent stake in national energy company YPF.
In addition, the government is in the middle of a legal battle with holdout creditors that have refused to accept the terms of the country’s $80bn debt restructuring. The US Supreme Court declined to accept an Argentine appeal to hear the case this week, although a second appeal is expected.
Gideon Rachman and his FT colleagues debate international affairs
These are just some of the problems facing Mr Boudou, Argentina’s constitutionally enabled acting president, while Ms Fernández convalesces.
Whether the 50-year-old former economy minister has the power to tackle them is moot. Mr Boudou faces corruption charges, making him one of Argentina’s most unpopular politicians; in an October poll by Management & Fit, 47 per cent viewed him negatively. Even allies say Mr Boudou seems more at ease playing guitar in a rock band or riding a Harley-Davidson than governing.
“The president will [continue to] take the decisions,” said cabinet chief Juan Manuel Abal Medina even as Ms Fernández remained in intensive care. “The only person who has power is the president.”
The uncertainty surrounding who is actually in charge is reminiscent of the institutional confusion that paralysed decision-making in Venezuela when Hugo Chávez was diagnosed with cancer two years ago.
Although Ms Fernández’s condition is far less serious, and resolving a hematoma is an almost routine procedure, Pablo Rubino, a doctor at the Fundacion Favaloro clinic that conducted the operation, said it required “a period of complete rest” that could last from 20 to 30 days.
In the meantime, investors have taken Ms Fernández’s declining popularity as a sign that a more business-friendly government may emerge after presidential elections in 2015. Over the past month, Argentine stocks have risen 15 per cent. More centrist Peronist politicians, such as Sergio Massa, the ambitious mayor of Tigre and a former Ms Fernández adviser, are already jostling for position.
“If Massa is not in the opposition, then I am the Mona Lisa,” Ms Fernández said in a rare television interview screened two days before she went to hospital.
Ms Fernández’s condition has prompted a stream of condolences from even bitter opponents, including the government of the Falklands which she has made the focal point of her foreign policy in an intensification of Argentina’s longstanding claim to the islands.
“Irrespective of our differences, we wish [the] Argentine President well,” it tweeted on Monday.
Still, such well-meaning words have not stopped gossip about what Ms Fernández might do when she returns. Speculation ranges from a deepening of the populist model she calls “the project”, to retiring from politics on health reasons – especially if her party is trounced in the midterms, leaving her a lame-duck president.
For the feisty leader, whose closest followers are referred to as Penguins after her power base in the icy southern province of Patagonia, that might be an unconscionable defeat.
“Cristina hates losing,” said Celia Szusterman, an Argentine academic. “She would hate to be a lame penguin.”