The reaction to President Cristina Fernández’s post-election speech and press conference last Monday was almost universally negative. Newspaper columns such as this one and this one were highly critical but representative of the overall reaction. The commentary on radio and television talk shows in the hours following the speech was critical. Viewer and listener comments focused on how the president seemed incapable of humbly and magnanimously acknowledging an electoral setback while simultaneously seeking to lead the country forward in a positive way.
The president, whose Victory Front Party suffered a major electoral defeat, sounded tone deaf and incapable of acknowledging that a significant portion of the country had voted for change. Indeed, seven out of 10 people voted for opposition candidates. Instead, the president downplayed her rivals’ achievements. In trying to make them seem small, she came across as a sore loser.
In the eyes of many Argentines the election was a referendum on her government. Instead of congratulating all parties for their participation in the election, the president, a lawyer by training, proceeded to make the case, in effect, that her party had in some ways actually won the election.
Fernández spoke at length about the number of votes cast. She said that nationwide the ruling party and its allies had won 31.03% of the votes cast while the second-largest coalition party won 29%. Union Pro, the coalition led by Buenos Aires City Mayor Mauricio Macri, whom the president detests, and Francisco De Narváez, who beat the president’s husband, Néstor Kirchner, got just 18.50% of the vote. The implication: the government’s ruling party won, the others lost.
The president analyzed the election results almost ad infinitum. To critics, she came off somewhat like a pedantic college professor.
Fernández literally recognized her husband’s defeat in his race in the province of Buenos Aires. But she immediately followed this acknowledgement with a “but,” in which she questioned the media’s interpretation of the election. She criticized the media for focusing too much on her husband’s election while ignoring votes cast elsewhere. In some ways her point was fair. But her extended focus on it made her seem like a curmudgeon expressing a grudge. One person said watching the president was like watching a tennis player lose a match and refuse to shake her adversary’s hand afterward.
Clearly, Fernández was trying to counter the perception that her party had been dealt a major blow, something that would reflect poorly on her presidency. She was spinning the results. To a certain extent this is natural, a common part of the political game played in most elections in most countries. That’s partly what politicians do. They spin. They try to make their opponents’ points look bad while making theirs look good. But spin can only get you so far. At some point, a public’s need for authenticity and ownership hits a tipping point. When that point arrives, spin becomes counter productive, eliciting cynicism instead of confidence. This tipping point arrived a long time ago and seems to have manifested itself in the voting booths.
Radio commentators and talk show callers said the president’s excess focus on the minutiae of voting data seemed more like a manifestation of denial than a respectful recognition of defeat. The president’s data was accurate. But it portrayed only a partial picture of the overall election. And from a PR perspective, it really doesn’t matter if the data was accurate. To many, the president appeared petty, unable or unwilling to rise to the occasion and extend her congratulations to the winners.
Given this perception, the president likely could have delivered a more appealing speech by focusing less on the numbers and more on the big picture. She could have gracefully acknowledged a setback, and congratulated her political opponents, especially the one who beat her husband. She could have pledged her enthusiasm in working with opponents to solve common problems. This might have helped her appear above the fray. It might have made her look more presidential, more like a leader that the country can support even amid differences of opinion and economic hardship. At the very least, it would have dampened opposition from critics who unfairly accuse the president of possessing no positive qualities.
Fernández is a deeply polarizing president. Her approval rating stands at around 29%, according to the polling firm Poliarquía, which was the most accurate pollster during the campaign season. Her numbers are similar to those of former U.S. president George W. Bush.
For one reason or another, she inspires discomfort in many people. Large sectors of Argentine society find her grating. People find her tone resentful instead of uplifting. Her policies aside, many find her aggressive and overly combative in a country whose history has been characterized by too much of both.
The perception, fair or not, is that Fernández is constantly lecturing people. She talks incessantly about the past when many people, especially the young, want to focus on the future. In her speech, she mentioned the word “votes” 16 times. She never mentioned the word “future.” Nor did she mention the word “together” or “better.” She used the word “change” only once, and it was in a reference to the past.
Like a pedantic history professor, she talked about previous elections in 1987 and 1997. She said that in 1997 one party got 36.60% of the vote in the City of Buenos while another got 36.33%. It’s hard to imagine that many voters today care much about the details of the 1997 election, especially when explained to the hundredth decimal point.
The 2,152-word, extemporaneously delivered speech was largely a history lesson given from the perspective of a partisan politician. It was the speech of a defense lawyer making a case for her defendant, the government, which voters had metaphorically accused of political misconduct. It was not the speech of a leader seeking to unite people, heal wounds and move the country forward.
When Fernández took to the stage, people were hoping to see a magnanimous gesture, an indication that she had heard the peoples’ voice and recognized their call for change. Her apparent failure to fulfill these hopes simply exacerbated the frustration already felt by critics.
Here is the speech she should have given. It could have been brief, magnanimous, unifying and inspiring. It’s the kind of speech that an image consultant might have advised her to give if her goal was to uplift the nation:
LADIES AND GENTLEMAN, THE PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC OF ARGENTINA:
“Good evening. Thank you for being here.
We all have reason to be proud of our country tonight.
Last night marked the most recent example of a successful election in our 26-year-old democracy. We have made great progress in those years.
We have experienced a lot together as Argentines. As a nation we have scars that are still healing. We’ve had setbacks that have been painful and all too frequent.
But while we’ve had these challenges, we’ve always gotten through them, together.
Yesterday’s election was a perfect example of how we can achieve great feats, together.
Across the nation we lined up peacefully to voice our opinions, carry out our patriotic duty as citizens and place our faith in the democracy that we so cherish.
Despite differences of opinion, race, religion and age, we united as a people and proved once again that we can all move forward toward a common goal. Yesterday we met that goal and reasserted our faith in the democratic process. In doing so, we reasserted our faith in each other and our in political system.
I have great faith in our young nation. And I have great faith in you, my fellow citizens. Yesterday you sent all of us in government a clear message. You expressed a desire for change. I have listened carefully to your call. And I pledge to learn from it. Listening to your message will help me to better meet your needs as your president. I will need your help to do this, and so I ask you for it tonight.
I am not perfect, and we all know my administration has not been perfect. I cannot promise perfection, but I can promise to learn from my mistakes. Understanding your message will help me do that.
I will also need the help of Congress and everyone elected to it yesterday. I pledge to work together with all of our representatives to ensure that we find solutions to our shared problems.
There is nothing we can’t do – no challenge we can’t overcome – if we set aside our traditional grievances and work together, as Argentines. The opposition has called for more dialogue, for consensus. You will have it. I am determined to make sure that we are all on the same team. We all have the same goals, even if we sometimes differ on what we think is the best way to achieve them.
I call on you now to have faith in your new Congress and renewed faith in me. I call on you also to have renewed faith in each other. Too often we question each other’s motives instead of each other’s ideas. No longer. Let us assume from here on out that each and every one of us loves his country and wants the best for it. Let us assume that we have each other’s best interest in mind.
This election was about the future, not the past. For too long we have focused too much on our nation’s past. I myself have spoken too often of our past, thinking somehow that this would help me lead us into the future.
But while we should learn from our past, we shouldn’t let it define us as a nation. In reality, yesterday’s exercise in democracy was about tomorrow. It was about your future – our future – as a country and a people.
I want to thank everyone who participated in yesterday’s election. I also want to congratulate Francisco de Narváez for the campaign he fought so well in the province of Buenos Aires. Of course, I didn’t want him to win. How could I? He was running against my husband, our former president, and the man I love.
But I know in my heart that De Narváez is a patriot. He loves his country, as does my husband. We all want the same thing. We all want to make Argentina the country we dream it can be. We are all in this together. We are one nation. And it is only by realizing this that we can move forward as one people.
We have much to learn as a country. My government has much to learn. I have much to learn. For too long politics in Argentina has been treated as a zero-sum game, where in order for one person to advance, his rival must necessarily fail. This model of politics itself has failed us. Beginning today we embark on a new journey by focusing, all of us together, on the future. This is the lesson that I have learned from yesterday’s election.
Starting tomorrow morning I will sit down with Francisco De Narváez, Vice President Julio Cobos, Santa Fe Senator Carlos Reutemman, Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, and others, to chart a new path forward. Our work will be inspired by a common purpose, which is to make sure that this great nation – our nation – becomes everything we know it can be.
Thank you and good night.”