Just about every political junkie in Argentina is wondering if President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner will seek reelection in October. Not only has the president not revealed her plans but she’s said she’s “not dying” to be president again.
That’s fueled speculation she will drop a political bomb later this month by announcing she won’t seek another four-year term.
But most analysts assume she’ll confirm her candidacy within two weeks, as required by law. To them, it’s inconceivable that a politician so likely to win reelection would turn down the chance to remain in power. For these people, the more interesting question is who she’ll pick to accompany her as vice president.
The truth is few people know with certainty what the president’s intentions are. Even people relatively close to the president say they’re unsure if she’ll run. In some ways, arm-chair psychologists may have a better chance of predicting the president’s plans than experienced political analysts.
After all, how is a political analyst to interpret the president when she says, tears streaming down her face, that she’s already given all she has to the country. Is it raw emotion, calculated political acting, some combination of the two, or something entirely different? This seems to be less the stuff of politics than of psychology.
But assuming she does run, one of the most interesting questions relates to how Argentina might change under a second Fernandez term. For some, the biggest change would entail a complete overhaul of Argentina’s constitutional system.
It’s well-known that Fernandez has spoken with confidants about possible constitutional reforms. What’s less certain is precisely what the president might have in mind.
In February Congresswoman Diana Conti, a key presidential ally in Congress, said publicly what other supporters had long been saying in private. Which is to say that Argentina needs “constitutional reform” so an “eternal Cristina” can stay in power as long as necessary.
Conti said she and other “ultra K” supporters advocated such reform. She didn’t provide details and she acknowledged that this would be no small endeavor. It would require consensus among Argentines.
But another prominent political figure, Supreme Court Justice Eugenio Zaffaroni, who has been mentioned as a possible VP candidate for Fernandez, also favors reforming the constitution.
Zaffaroni would like to see Argentina’s congressional government turned into a parliamentary system in hopes of giving the country greater political stability and reducing its dependence on presidential power.
It’s far from clear that adopting a parliamentary democracy would impose stability on Argentina. After all, Argentines are largely Italian, in more ways than one, and Italy’s parliamentary system is famous for its rotating prime minsters and unstable, ineffective parliament.
So how would Fernandez sell constitutional reform to skeptical Argentines? By offering a bit of something to everyone.
For instance, the City of Buenos Aires has long yearned for greater autonomy. Mayor Mauricio Macri’s effort to build a police force, with no help – indeed, with opposition – from the federal government, is a perfect example.
The federal government controls the city’s streets through the Federal Police. Moreover, Fernandez’s personal distaste for Macri has prevented the city and federal governments from collaborating on this and other issues.
What does any of this have to do with parliamentary reform? Simple, Fernandez could offer autonomy to the city, reforming the constitution to give it state-like status and near-total control of the police and other resources. In exchange, Macri, or any other mayor, would have a strong incentive to back reform.
The only politician who has successfully challenged Fernandez and her late husband, former president Nestor Kirchner, is Congressman Francisco de Narvaez, AKA “El Colorado” because of his red hair.
In 2009 De Narvaez outpolled Kirchner in a congressional race in the province of Buenos Aires, infuriating the former president and proving he could wield significant political influence.
El Colorado, who is now running for governor in the province, would prefer to run for president. But he’s got a problem. He was born in Colombia. He’s constitutionally ineligible to run for president.
Reforming the constitution could change that, giving De Narvaez an incentive to support the reform.
It’s not hard to imagine how the ample use of political carrots and sticks could boost support for some kind of constitutional reform within a year or two after the October election.
Fernandez and her supporters could win by gaining the capacity to remain in power indefinitely, no longer impeded by constitutional term limits.
All of this is speculation, of course. The president has dismissed such talk as nonsense and it’s not even clear she wants to be in power indefinitely, if at all.
In February, Fernandez said it was ridiculous to think she could reform the constitution if she couldn’t even get Congress to approve her 2011 budget.
That may be true.
But it’s also true that Fernandez is skilled at jaw-dropping her critics by announcing unexpected policies from one day to the next. She keeps her cards close to her chest and reveals nothing until the last minute. It’s her modus operandi. As such, her “indecision” about a second term shouldn’t surprise anyone.
The president has consistently outmaneuvered opponents by being several steps ahead of them – and by often doing things that nobody would expect. This has often kept the competition off balance.
When Fernandez ran for office in 2007 her campaign slogan was, “The Change is Just Beginning.”
In fact, after she won the election, nothing changed at all. Fernandez’s administration looked exactly liked her husband’s. She even kept the same cabinet ministers.
Just as in 2007, Fernandez hasn’t said what she would do if reelected. Then, as now, even the most-connected political insiders had little idea what Fernandez would do in the years ahead. Now it’s not even clear what she’ll do in the next two weeks.
But that’s not preventing some of Argentina’s smartest analysts from thinking a second Fernandez term could be more radical than the first. After all, that’s exactly what her own administration officials have said will happen if she’s reelected.
Assuming, of course, that she runs.