Like the mythical Phoenix that dies in flames and is reborn from its own ashes, former president Néstor Kirchner this week reemerged from the quietude of his self-imposed isolation following a stunning setback in June’s midterm congressional election.
The former president’s return was just as fiery as the run-up to his defeat in the election, when Congressman and wealthy businessman Francisco de Narváez outpolled Kirchner by a small margin in the all-important province of Buenos Aires.
Given Argentina’s proportional voting system, both candidates won seats in Congress.
But De Narváez’s victory was a shocking symbolic defeat for Kirchner and his wife and successor, President Cristina Fernández.
The defeat stunned the former president, who offered a bumbling press conference immediately after the election and then fell into a period of unusual silence.
Political analysts and other pundits said the election marked an inflection point in Argentine politics. It was the beginning of the end of the Kirchners, they said.
After all, seven out of 10 voters cast their ballots in favor of opposition candidates who had consistently badmouthed the Kirchners and their combative, take-no-prisoners style of politics.
In a press conference Thursday, however, the former president offered no indication that he would be throwing in the white towel. On the contrary, he was more combative than ever.
Kirchner launched a ferocious attack on the country’s largest multimedia conglomerate, Grupo Clarin, whose eponymous newspaper is the most popular in Argentina.
Kirchner has long accused the newspaper of biased reporting. Moreover, a media reform proposal recently sent to Congress by President Fernández would force the group to downsize substantially, diminishing both its income and influence.
As I noted in this story for Dow Jones, Fernández dealt a significant blow to the group by nationalizing a contract it had to broadcast soccer games as pay-per-view events.
The story also noted that the federal broadcast committee, COMFER, this week blocked a merger between Argentina’s top cable television providers, Cablevisión and Multicanal.
Grupo Clarín, which owns most of Cablevisión, bought Multicanal in 2006 and said it would fuse the company into Cablevisión, creating a virtual monopoly over cable television services in parts of Argentina, including the City of Buenos Aires and surrounding areas.
Some critics suspect the government initially allowed the merger in a bid to procure favorable coverage from Clarín.
As the story noted, Kirchner’s administration had approved the merger shortly before he left office and handed over power to his wife: “When asked about the apparently contradictory reversal, Kirchner said he wasn’t aware of the rationale behind the broadcast committee’s decision.”
That may well be true. But it’s not hard to see why some people think the media reform law, while broadly welcome in many ways, is also an attempt to castrate Grupo Clarín and curtail the power of the Fourth Estate, which the Kirchners have repeatedly scorned in public.
Whatever the case, Clarín has done itself no favor in recent weeks by confirming the Kirchners’ accusations that its reporting is biased.
The group’s flagship newspaper has consistently grouped damning stories and headlines on its cover and front pages, leading to the impression it’s more interested in salvaging its business empire than in upholding the highest standards of journalistic integrity.
Virtually no journalist in Argentina is unaware of the paper’s tilt, and even multiple insiders at the daily say the bias has become extreme in recent weeks.
All of which plays right into the hands of the former president, who has built and maintained his power by repeatedly positioning himself as the only force capable of defanging all that stands between Argentina and a more just, prosperous future.
Kirchner is back, and Clarín has unintentionally helped pave his path.
What remains to be seen is whether his nearly mythical ability to defy the odds and crush the competition will allow him to soar as before, or if his no-holds-barred instincts will lead him, once again, to go down in flames.