The death of Néstor Kirchner

It has not been a good week for regional leaders; indeed, it has been rather a sad week for Latin America and the Caribbean. As Guyana and the Caribbean Community mourned the tragic, premature death of Barbadian Prime Minister David Thompson, last Saturday, at the age of 48, after a battle of several months with pancreatic cancer, Néstor Kirchner, the former President of Argentina (2003-2007), died suddenly on Thursday morning of a heart attack, at the relatively youthful age of 60. Mr Kirchner may be less familiar to Guyanese, but he was due to become better known as the Secretary General of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which Guyana is scheduled to chair from November 26, 2010, when the regional grouping will hold its next summit in Georgetown.

It is too early to say exactly what Mr Kirchner’s death means for UNASUR, given that he was only named secretary general in May this year. But in Argentina, this untimely and unwanted development heralds a period of political uncertainty and drama for the country and more particularly, the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Mr Kirchner’s widow.

Mrs Fernández, 57, was elected in late 2007 when she succeeded her husband, who had only served one term. Mr Kirchner was eligible for re-election and was considered a shoo-in, having presided over Argentina’s remarkable recovery from economic and social bankruptcy. He however chose to pass the baton to his wife, who was able to piggyback on his success in removing Argentina’s crippling debt burden and initiating an economic turnaround that saw 8% annual growth, with a significant reduction in unemployment and poverty.

That Mr Kirchner chose to cede the presidency to his wife and not capitalise on his own approval rating of over 50% was widely regarded at the time as a ploy on his part to create a populist, political movement of his own, dubbed ‘Kirchnerismo,’ and perhaps alternate with his wife, for one or the other to wear the presidential sash until at least 2019. But the Grim Reaper has no respect for human, much less political, ambitions and plans.

Mr Kirchner was the leader of the Justicialist Party, a ‘big tent’ alliance founded by the late President Juan Perón and his famous wife, Eva, in 1947.  It was, however, split in the 2005 legislative elections when two factions, led respectively by Mrs Fernández and Hilda González de Duhalde, wife of another ex-president, contested a Senate seat in the province of Buenos Aires.

The Justicialists of the Kirchners are supposed to represent the largest component of the old Peronist party, based on the populist ideology of ‘Peronismo,’ melding social justice, economic independence, nationalism and strong central government. Under Mr Kirchner, however, there evolved a new strain called, logically, ‘Kirchnerismo,’ founded on a rejection of the neo-liberal policies of the Washington Consensus and an embrace of Peronist links with the labour movement, indigenous industrialisation, the defence of human rights and an international posture closer to President Hugo Chávez’s ALBA than to Washington.

Mr Kirchner, accused by some as having authoritarian tendencies, was intimately involved in every major political decision taken by the party and the government. His death removes one half of the so-called ‘presidential marriage’ and leaves a huge void in the Justicialist Party. Some analysts even fear for the sustainability of ‘Kirchnerismo’ without his dynamic presence and political acumen.

Even as the future of ‘Kirchnerismo’ is now threatened, Argentina is facing a presidential election in October 2011. Mrs Fernández’s chances of re-election, already undermined by a serious defeat for the ruling party in the June 2009 legislative elections, have suffered a massive blow with the removal of the party’s guiding spirit, the architect of its electoral success beginning in 2003, and her chief mentor and confidant.

The death of Néstor Kirchner means the disappearance of the strongman of the political movement that emerged from the turn-of-the century economic crisis in Argentina. Mrs Fernández’s immediate challenge is to balance her personal grief and the call of presidential duty, in order to maintain a steady hand on the ship of state at a time of national mourning and uncertainty. It remains to be seen how President Fernández and the government will fare without Mr Kirchner and whether she has the political strength to protect her late husband’s legacy and to survive on her own.

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