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Battered but standing in Argentina

Popular President Nestor Kirchner endures a run of bad news, including scandal and strike, as he weighs a reelection run.

June 06, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — Argentine President Nestor Kirchner is facing the biggest crisis of his four-year presidency just as he decides whether to seek reelection in October or back the prospective candidacy of his wife, a prominent senator.

A scandal centering on a natural gas pipeline project prompted the president to fire two aides last month, while a third resigned and the government assumed direct control of a state energy regulatory body, Enargas.

Meanwhile, a virtual rebellion arising from a teachers strike in Kirchner's home province has shaken the president's rural base and forced the departure of the governor, a Kirchner ally. Angry protesters in the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz tossed eggs and flour at the president's sister, Alicia Kirchner, the minister of social development.

Here in the capital, a riot in a major commuter station has underscored citizen discontent, and the president's preferred candidate finished a distant second in mayoral balloting Sunday.

Still, analysts say a Kirchner -- either the incumbent or his wife, Sen. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner -- remains a prohibitive favorite to triumph in presidential elections Oct. 28.

A divided opposition appears incapable of overcoming the popularity that Kirchner has won for his role in steering the country out of the economic collapse of 2001-02, which has been followed by brisk growth.

"They'll win the election despite everything that has been happening," predicted Jorge Lanata, a prominent journalist and author. "First, because the economy is better. And, secondly, because things don't change in a few months or a year. This is a long process."

Nonetheless, observers here say the bad news has battered the president's preferred image as a pugnacious, clean-hands nationalist who restored financial and political stability.

Since assuming the presidency with just 22% of the vote, Kirchner has consolidated power in his party and launched populist broadsides at foreign corporations and the International Monetary Fund. He has bullied companies into price controls, battled with cattlemen to keep beef prices low, pressed human rights cases against members of former military juntas and forged close alliances with left-wing protest brigades.

Although Kirchner maintains cordial relations with Washington, he has become a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, irking the Bush administration.

Kirchner's left-wing populism has won him enemies in the nasty scrum of Argentine politics. So has the president's widely perceived arrogance and what detractors call an authoritarian tendency to concentrate power in his own hands. A widely repeated assertion here is that the president tolerates criticism only from his wife, who, like her husband, distrusts the press and seldom grants interviews.

Buenos Aires Mayor Jorge Telerman, a Kirchner foe who lost his bid for a new term in Sunday's balloting here, has accused the Kirchner administration of "persecution" by hyping allegations that Telerman padded his resume.

The government denies political dirty tricks. It also discounts any presidential connection to the burgeoning Skanska public works scandal, named after the Swedish construction giant suspected of bribing public officials. Three government officials who have left in the wake of the Skanska affair have been linked in press accounts to Julio de Vido, the powerful planning minister who is a longtime Kirchner associate and friend.

"The president has clean hands," declared Alberto Fernandez, Kirchner's Cabinet chief.

Kirchner has touted his own Buenos Aires mayoral hopeful, Minister of Education Daniel Filmus. But Filmus finished far behind Mauricio Macri, a Kirchner rival and center-right businessman who is president of the Boca Juniors soccer club. Macri is heavily favored to win the mayoral runoff vote June 24.

Critics see the developments of recent weeks as the result of a leader who has enfeebled government institutions and encouraged allies to take their grievances to the streets. Kirchner defenders point out that corruption and street protests marked Argentine politics long before Kirchner arrived, and will surely outlast him.

Last month, in a rare interview with a radio journalist, Kirchner seemed uncharacteristically self-critical, sparking speculation about whether recent downbeat developments had chastened him.

After months of insisting that the public works scandal was exclusively a case of private-sector corruption, the president finally conceded a "state" component, albeit limited.

Ricardo Kirschbaum, a columnist for the daily Clarin, noted a "decided change of tone" in Kirchner's words. "Now, four years after assuming office and with the economic recovery ... there appears to be an intent to modify this image," he wrote.

In public comments recently, Kirchner again lavished praise on his wife, saying she could provide "the institutional quality that the country needs."

He has also invoked the memory of Eva Peron, the iconic former first lady with whom his wife would like to be associated.

Many saw another thinly veiled hint that Kirchner soon would defer to his spouse's presidential ambitions.

"Is Kirchner so confident of his record that he feels he can safely risk this outrageously nepotistic choice?" asked the English-language Buenos Aires Herald, a frequent critic.

"Or ... is he passing her a poisoned chalice as his luck runs out?"

--

patrick.mcdonnell@ latimes.com

Andres D'Alessandro in The Times' Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.

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