Most people in Argentina think Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is a crook. According to one recent opinion poll, almost half of the 34 percent who last November voted for candidates attached to the Peronist coalition she put together believe she is guilty of all the many crimes the public prosecutor Diego Luciani accused her of committing. As for the majority that voted against Peronist candidates, with hardly any exceptions those who backed it have no doubts about the matter.
In some parts of the world, the presumption that about 80 percent of the citizenry is convinced that a prominent female politician is a thief would be more than enough to turn her into a political corpse, but despite her tarnished image, Cristina is still credited with wielding more raw power than anybody else. This may be an illusion attributable to little more than the reluctance of President Alberto Fernández to do or say anything that might annoy her, but the Kirchnerites are determined to cling to it because she is the only plausible leader they have. Her own attempts to make people accept either her son Máximo or Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kiciloff as potential heirs have fallen flat, which is not surprising as both owe to her the prominent positions they have come to occupy.
For those of us who have never been particularly impressed by Cristina’s “charisma” or what she supposedly stands for, her ability first to win and then retain the fervent support of a single-minded minority and, on occasion, much of the electorate that has been more than willing to overlook not only her many well-documented misdemeanours but also her habit of subordinating everything else to her own personal interests, requires an explanation. The most plausible is that in 2003 when, after Carlos Menem dropped out of a race he looked bound to lose, Néstor Kirchner won office with less than a quarter of the votes cast, he set about building himself a power base by cannily allying himself with the many Peronists, leftists and assorted “progressives” who wanted to get their own back on the military, those they accused of sympathising with them, the local “oligarchy” and others they disliked. Until then, Néstor and his wife had treated such people with barely disguised contempt, but after moving into the Casa Rosada they understood it would be helpful to have them on their side. It was a very smart move.
In the early 2000s, with much of the country in a vengeful mood, Kirchnerism – which became a blend of old-fashioned populist authoritarianism as practised in “feudal” backwaters and identity politics topped off with a coating of up-to-date rhetoric – quickly took off. As Néstor’s government and those of Cristina which followed it were happy to reward their keenest supporters with cushy jobs in the public administration and, in many cases, large sums of money for allegedly having suffered at the hands of the dictatorship, they found it easy to create an army of “militants” whose personal prospects depended directly on the fate of their political patrons.
Are they all true believers in the anachronistic “narrative” spun by an unprepossessing assortment of “intellectuals” stuck in the 1970s? Given the almost universal ability of people to believe firmly in whatever suits them, no matter how outlandish it may seem to sceptics, it is reasonable to assume that many, perhaps most, really do take it seriously. Will they continue to do so if they finally come to the conclusion that, while in office, Cristina worked hard at enriching herself, her close relatives and her cronies by creaming off a hefty percentage of the money spent on public works? No doubt some will; history is full of examples of men and women who have reacted with fanaticism the moment they began to suspect the creed they had made their own was simply untenable.
As luck would have it, Kirchnerism is a relatively benign political doctrine, but even so some of its adherents are already threatening their foes – who now include much of the country’s population – with violence if the judicial proceedings against Cristina reach what now appears to be their logical conclusion and she gets sentenced to a lengthy jail term. Though few think she will actually have to serve time because, thanks to a distorted interpretation of measures which were originally designed to give politicians parliamentary immunity by ensuring they could not be prosecuted for statements made while performing their official duties, she can expect to avoid getting sent inside, it would certainly be embarrassing for her.
Cristina’s arraignment and her followers’ reaction to it are having an ambiguous effect on the country’s reputation abroad. For many foreign observers, putting on trial a politician who is far from powerless suggests that, by and large, the rule of law does mean something in this part of the world; on the other hand, the spectacle being provided by a president who is blatantly trying to lean on judges and by political middleweights who warn that laying a finger on Cristina would lead to mass mayhem makes it look as though Argentina is just another “banana republic” ruled by a bunch of thugs who think that after getting elected they are fully entitled to line their pockets.
For many years, corruption was widely seen as something Northern European Protestants and their transatlantic cousins worried about but which laid-back southerners were willing to tolerate, but attitudes started to change as more and more people came to understand that it put a brake on economic development. The case involving Cristina makes this unpleasantly clear. By steering public money towards a fly-by-night construction firm which rarely constructed anything worthwhile, the Kirchnerite governments deprived the country of hundreds, perhaps thousands of millions of dollars which could have gone into projects that would have improved the lives of a great many people.
This would have been bad enough if corrupt behaviour had been confined to members of the Kirchner family and their factotum Lázaro Báez but, of course, it was not. Taking a cue from what they saw happening at the very top, political operators big and small and their friends in politics did much the same, thereby helping fuel the appalling social and political crisis that is devouring Argentina and which, tragically, looks all too likely to get far worse in the coming months.