What Argentina's Midterms Mean for Latin America

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Natacha Pisarenko / AP

It's rare to see Argentina's First Family convey political humility. But as President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her husband (and presidential predecessor) Néstor Kirchner absorbed their startling defeat in Sunday's midterm elections, they both offered unusual hints of contrition. "In a democracy, you win and you lose," said Fernández after her Peronist party's congressional majority had vanished, leaving her to deal with a potentially hostile parliament over the last 2½ years of her term. Kirchner, who resigned as the Peronists' leader after suffering a close but stunning loss in a congressional race, conceded that "in the coming days, we'll all have to evaluate the mistakes that have been made."

Politicos all over Latin America will be scrutinizing those mistakes as well. The Argentine poll was a referendum on Fernández's often confrontational leadership style — which voters and financial markets alike decided isn't all that well suited to rescuing South America's second-largest economy from the ravages of a global recession. The Fernández-Kirchner comeuppance may well be taken as a first sign that the economic downturn is reining in the region's increasingly powerful Presidents, especially the leftists who this decade have become a popular counter to U.S. political and economic hegemony in the Americas.

Fernández, like her husband and their left-wing ally President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, is a combative populist who critics say is too dismissive of the legislative and judicial branches, which are still weak institutions in Latin America. Her Sunday setback "indicates that Latin America's hyperpresidentialist project, which was fueled by the economic boom, faces walls and obstacles now," says Javier Corrales, a Latin America expert who teaches political science at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Another factor is the exit of U.S. President George W. Bush, whose own bid for excessive presidential power wasn't exactly seen by Latin Americans as a model of democratic checks and balances. Today, the more collegial Obama presidency makes hyperpresidencies look less seemly.

Corrales is quick to note that the region's trend toward "superpresidencies," which includes conservative leaders like Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, "is far from over." But Fernández — who does little to discourage comparisons to Eva Perón, the glamorous and powerful Argentine First Lady of the 1940s and '50s known as Evita — has had her clout both at home and abroad diminished to the point that Argentine pundits are even discussing whether she might soon resign. While that's unlikely, the rest of her term promises to be a slog, and her husband's widely discussed plans to run for President again in 2011 suddenly seem a long shot.

Fernández's fall has been a steep one. Kirchner, elected in 2003, has been credited with nothing less than saving Argentina after its epic financial collapse of 2002. But he decided not to run for a second term in 2007, deferring instead to his wife, then a popular Senator. Though critics claimed their plan was simply to alternate in power for 16 years, Fernández won decisively and took office with a near 80% approval rating.

Within months, though, she was locked in acrimonious standoffs with everyone from farmers, who mobilized against her hikes in commodity-export taxes, to opposition leaders, who decried her efforts to nationalize private pension funds and her government's ties to a Venezuelan financial scandal. They also argued that Kirchner was still calling the shots from the presidential palace. Even her Vice President, Julio Cobos, last year cast the deciding Senate vote against her and for the farmers in a humiliating policy defeat.

Fernández, who like Kirchner hails from the provinces and butts heads with the Buenos Aires élite, insists she has simply tried to preserve the economic stability her husband created and deliver it to a broader swath of the working class. But when she saw that her poll numbers had plunged below 30% — and realized moreover that the recession and rising crime statistics only stood to sink them further — she moved this year's midterm elections from October to June. Hoping to shore up the Peronists' prospects, Kirchner announced he would run for a congressional seat from Buenos Aires.

Corrales says many Latin Presidents are feeling a similar sort of panic. Earlier this year, Chávez saw plummeting oil prices threaten to undermine his socialist revolution, which has enfranchised Venezuela's poor but has also raised fears about authoritarian rule. Chávez rushed through a constitutional referendum last February that lets him run for re-election indefinitely. Fernández's midterm defeat, says Corrales, may have leaders like Chávez "asking if they should ease up on their ideological hard line or ramp it up to neutralize opponents before it's too late." In Honduras, a coup on the day of the Argentine vote forced leftist President Manuel Zelaya into exile. Zelaya's foes accuse him of presidential overreach.

Corrales says that coups are an "unacceptable" way for opponents to confront ambitious presidencies. But to keep her presidency relevant, Fernández, 56, will have to moderate her own political reach. Although Kirchner's Buenos Aires congressional slate lost to the more conservative opposition party, Union-Pro, he still gets a seat in the Chamber of Deputies because of proportional-voting rules. But Union-Pro leader and billionaire businessman Francisco de Narváez told the Buenos Aires daily La Nación that Kirchner "needs to step aside and let his wife be the nation's President and build some space for consensus." The President, he said, needs to read "these election results well." Other Latin Presidents should too.