A good deal will be written in the coming days about Argentina’s crushing World Cup defeat and its political significance for Argentine President Cristina Fernández and her husband, former president Néstor Kirchner.
Both are considered serious contenders for the next presidential election in late 2011.
Before Saturday’s shock defeat in South Africa, local media had published a veritable avalanche of articles about the World Cup and its influence on politics.
Foreign media outlets stepped in as well, with fun yet substantive articles like this one by friends at Bloomberg.
But just as the World Cup itself has been, Argentina’s political future is unpredictable.
Still, one things seems to be clear: the Kirchners are in trouble.
Despite years of exceptionally impressive economic growth and political stability, the First Couple remains highly unpopular.
Years of fierce political confrontation and aggressive, hostile rhetoric have left huge portions of the electorate with a bitter taste in their mouth.
Political infighting like that taking place in the U.S. now between Republicans and Democrats is typically, though not always, the mainstay of bad times – recessions, depressions, crises, etc. – when politicians play the blame game, not during the kind of boom times Argentina has had since its 2001-2002 meltdown.
Argentina’s troubles since then have been largely self-inflicted, many say, citing the 2008 farm conflict and the 2010 Central Bank crisis as perfect examples of avoidable crises. Many people think the country is doing well despite the Kirchners, not because of them.
Indeed, that is essentially what distinguishes Kirchner supporters from their detractors. Kirchneristas believe Argentina is doing well because of the Kirchners. Critics think it is doing well despite them.
Whatever the case, some policy choices, like the decision to take over the management of energy companies and nationalize the country’s private pension system have spooked investors here and abroad.
Finally, despite the virtually unanimous sensation that inflation is real and is pinching people’s purchasing power, the Kirchners continue to deny that it exists, compromising their credibility.
Since the government’s conflict with farmers in mid 2008, surveys have consistently shown the Kirchners to be broadly unpopular. That lack of support led to a bitter setback for the First Couple in last year’s congressional election in the province of Buenos Aires, where Kirchner won second place on the ballot.
Despite having the entirety of the state media apparatus, the ruling party’s political machinery, and his own track record as president behind him, Kirchner was unable to get even a third of the vote in the province, which had previously been considered a strong-hold for him and his wife.
Cristina Fernández won the 2007 presidential election with just 45% of the vote. By mid 2009, with her approval rating around the low to mid 20s, her husband got just 31% in his race to represent Buenos Aires.
It’s hard to know how many votes either Kirchner would get if the election were held now.
Given their consistently low approval ratings, one of the few reasons that anyone even questions whether they could win again in 2011 is that plausible alternatives to the First Couple often seem so feeble and disorganized. A coherent, nationally-backed alternative candidate does not yet exist.
Another reason is that since the Kirchners represent the party in power, they have the state’s vast resources at their disposal to push policies that can win votes.
Meanwhile, the Kirchners are incredibly agile, famous for outgunning their opponents and out-attacking them at virtually every point of contact.
Even so, a review of Saturday’s World Cup defeat in South Africa might provide some insight into how a more strategic, defensive approach might serve them well.
As Jeré Longman of the NY Times wrote:
“In building an ostentatious attack, Maradona neglected to shore up his defense for a day like Saturday, when the goals stopped coming for Argentina and the threats at the other end had to be countered with something other than indifference, lack of speed and disorganization.”
Perhaps the biggest threat to the Kirchners is that many people, including many who initially supported the government, seem to have become indifferent to the government’s accomplishments, including the booming economy and the relative political stability following the complete chaos of 2001-2002. Moreover, many of those people’s gains have been wiped out by inflation, which has in many cases reduced purchasing power.
For many people, the “goals have stopped coming in” and they are asking what the country should do next.
When chaos is a reality, as it was in 2001-2002, stability seems like a sufficient goal. Anything beyond that is a luxury, an option that people can afford to set aside until basic needs – like public order – are met.
Last year, sensing that the electorate’s simple desire for social and political order had evolved into a more nuanced desire for broader accomplishment, the Kirchners tried to shift thoughts back to the dark days of the 2001-2002 economic and political collapse.
The mid-term election, the Kirchners’ said, presented voters with a choice between order and chaos.
But the effort to present the options in such manic terms failed. Nationwide, about seven out of 10 votes went for opposition candidates. The Kirchners’ lost their control over Congress. Chaos never ensued.
Indeed, despite warnings to the contrary, Argentina’s economy is humming along smoothly, growing quickly this year as it rebounds from what most economists say was a sharp recession last year.
Moreover, while opposition parties gained power and are now asserting authority in Congress, virtually nobody foresees any major crises on the horizon. Instead, opposition leaders are eager to prevent a crisis. Despite incendiary rhetoric from a government which often has accused its opponents of wanting to overthrow it, virtually nobody in Congress wants the president to resign before her term ends.
That might not be so true for Maradona, who coached the incredibly talented Argentine squad into Saturday’s defeat against Germany. After all, as this very interesting post by a friend in The New Republic notes, Argentina can be a fickle nation, moving from one extreme to the other without blinking. Just look at how the country supported Menem throughout the 1990s but now disparages his administration to no end. Menem was a saint, now he is the devil.
But titans like Maradona, and even Kirchner, can rise and fall, and rise again. My own sense is that Maradona will likely be harder on himself than his countrymen will be on him. He seemed to show and feel genuine humility after Saturday’s defeat. It’s hard not to empathize with that.
Maradona and his team gave it their best shot, and gave us some wonderfully thrilling moments as they took us along for the ride.
Fair or not, humility is a word few analysts would use to describe the Kirchners, and it may be hard for the Kichners to make a comeback because of this. Policy aside, few people seem to sympathize with their governing style. They are perceived to be arrogant and, much like Menem in the 1990s, incapable of self criticism or humble retreat.
Like the country itself, Maradona has long been a fascinating barometer of human nature, impressive potential and sometimes shocking disappointment.
Just as it would be overreach to predict Maradona’s future, it seems foolhardy to draw hardened conclusions about what the World Cup results mean for the Kirchners.
As the NY Times put it when describing this week’s top World Cup matches:
“Most surprising was not that Brazil and Argentina lost, but that while fearsome in reputation, they proved merely fragile on the field, delicate, brittle and cracking under the first sign of strain. Afterward, Maradona, 49, hinted that he would step down.”
Nobody expects either of the Kirchners to “crack under strain” or step down.
After all, both have proven themselves to be incredibly resilient and fiercely determined even in the midst of controversy and challenge. And though they too are “fearsome in reputation,” it’s unclear how fragile they may be on the electoral field next year.
Even so, some things seem certain. If satisfaction over cultural achievements such as winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Film or winning the World Cup translate into votes, then the World Cup beating was a clear setback for the Kirchners.
People are no longer wondering if the president will travel to South Africa to watch Argentina play for the world title. That photo opportunity will never materialize, at least not for this president, at least not before this election.
Moreover, the government’s plan to give away more than 1 million HDTV decoders to poor Argentines suddenly seems less of a winsome idea than it did just days ago.
All the hopes and the expectations for a glorious national triumph are gone, and as they fade away so will the attention that has distracted people’s focus on the government and life’s quotidian problems like crime and inflation.
The biggest criticism the national squad may receive in the days ahead may be that it never really practiced as a full team the way some other country’s teams do. It was a massively talented team, but a team is always supposed to be more than the sum of its parts.
The Kirchners’ greatest strength, it seems, is that while their “team” is relatively tiny – a handful of key officials and foot soldiers in Congress – they have almost always played together as a team.
When the opposition is divided, the Kirchners have been fiercely united. Loyalty to team and mission is a fundamental aspect of the Kirchners’ DNA. This has allowed them to forge ahead despite opposition, creating wedges in a factious Congress and getting support for their goals even when it seems unlikely.
The powerful, impenetrable and utterly united German team had no trouble preventing Argentina from scoring on the field Saturday.
Argentina’s opposition parties and politicians, who are far more divided on the field than were the Germans, may find it harder to unite and provide a similarly strong front in next year’s election.
And as long as that’s the case, even the most powerful individual strikers, leaders like Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, will have trouble getting anywhere without a full national team backing them.
Yet the Kirchners’ great strength – their ability to hold their own team together – could, ironically, also be a disadvantage to them next year. That’s because many Argentines seem to feel that the Kirchners are not actually team players. They don’t play for the country, they play for themselves.
Politics, for the Kirchners, is not a team sport.
The Kirchners have never been known as consensus builders. Instead, the dominant view is that the Kirchners simply impose their policies on the country through brute force, coercion or arm twisting. This may simply be the way politics is done here.
But in a country that seems eager to overcome its divisive past, this style of politics may not be a winning ticket in the future.
If the World Cup showed us anything at all, it is that it is possible for Argentines to come together as a nation, to unite as a people and joyfully embrace the ties that bind them.
Next year, the candidate who best represents this sense of shared destiny, and who best unites diverging views and interests into a cohesive movement, is the person who will win the election.