President Kirchner’s reelection

By Pedro G. Cavallero (for Safe Democracy)

Pedro G. Cavallero reports on a recent study, which declared only 28 world countries to be full-fledged democracies: Argentina, despite its quarter century long struggle towards democratization, did not make the list. In Cavallero‘s opinion, it is clear that Argentina‘s age-old tradition of vesting power in authoritarian leaders, or caudillos, dies hard. And as President Nestor Kirchner continues to accumulate more power and attempt to circumvent constitutional safeguards on term limits, he is contributing to the weakening of democratic institutions.

Pedro G. Cavallero is a policy analyst based in Washington DC. He holds a master degree in Comparative Law and comments regularly on U.S. foreign policy and inter-American affairs.

ACCORDING TO A RECENT STUDY PUBLISHED BY THE ECONOMIST, 28 countries qualify as full-fledged democracies: an exiguous group given that 167 nations were surveyed and ranked. Remarkably, only two Latin American representatives belong to this privileged and limited club, Costa Rica and Uruguay, ranking 25th and 27th respectively.

The Economist‘s report was based on a number of indicators, which grouped into five different categories (electoral process and pluralism, civic liberties, governance, political participation and education) assess the state of democracy around the world.

As expected, the ranking’s top echelons are crowded by the perennially democratic Scandinavian nations, highly industrialized Western European countries, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. A third Latin American nation, Chile, comes close to the group (ranked as 30th), though still qualifies as an imperfect democracy, a category that includes 53 other states – including most Latin American and Caribbean nations.

And how well did Argentina do? Not well, as it was ranked 54th, behind Brazil (42nd), Panama (44th), Jamaica (45th), Trinidad and Tobago (48th), and even Mexico (53rd). Amazingly, a quarter century after Argentina broke its cycle of non-elected regimes (as the last Military Junta stepped down in 1983), it has been outpaced by Mexico, which only six years ago initiated its own transition to democracy.

In fact, until the election of President Vicente Fox in 2000, the Aztec nation experienced seven long decades under the quasi-monarchical, highly corrupt system of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). Yet, despite these major hurdles, Mexico managed to rank better than Argentina, which 25 years ago triggered the democratization of the entire Southern Cone.

Though many deeply rooted causes explain Argentina’s uncertain democratic evolution, its current administration has contributed to the weakening of the country’s institutions. Since coming to power in 2003, President Nestor Kirchner has increased the power and authority of the Presidency immensely beyond constitutional limits. Unfortunately, this expansive understanding of presidential prerogatives does not constitute an historical aberration.

Unlike in Mexico’s PRI (where the President exercised almost absolute power for a limited, nonrenewable six-year term) Argentina has a history of vesting its leaders with massive powers for as prolonged a term as circumstances allow. Furthermore, since the return of democracy, Presidents Raul Alfonsin (1983-1989) and Carlos Menem (1989-1999) have been obsessed with finding ways of staying in power well beyond the clear terms set by the constitution at the beginning of their mandates.

Throughout its history, a strong, unabated caudillo (authoritarian) tradition has deeply impregnated Argentina’s political life, eroding a fundamental democratic safeguard: power alternation. And without an almost sacrosanct understanding of the importance of this basic institutional pillar, democracy will crumble.

As Argentina moves toward its 2007 presidential elections, President Kirchner encouraged Peronist governors to seek constitutional reforms that would open up the way toward unlimited reelection. Though staged at the state level, these maneuvers were meant to test the waters for similar reform at the national level. According to the current constitution (reformed in 1994), the President is eligible for a maximum of two consecutive terms. However, local caudillos‘ voracious political appetites push hard for unlimited terms, seeking to overturn the non-reelection principle favored by the founding fathers.

As this experiment failed ignominiously in the Province of Misiones, Kirchner changed course slightly. For now, he has set aside the idea of running again in 2007 – though he has only served one term. Instead, he seems to have anointed his wife, Senator Cristina Kirchner, as Peronism’s standard-bearer and presidential nominee.

If elected in 2007, the flashy Senator-First Lady (quite often both roles collide) would stay in office during a four-year term, securing Nestor Kirchner’s safe and unchallenged return to the Casa Rosada (Presidential Palace), while also conveying a fake sense of alternation. According to this ambitious husband-wife-husband succession Kirchner would exercise direct power for a longer term than any reading of the constitution would allow.

Emboldened by fast economic growth rates and high approval ratings, President Kirchner shapes his institutional role in ways that are alien to the country’s system. Likewise, he longs for political longevity that defies basic premises imbued in Argentina’s political edifice. And as the society frees itself from the devastation of the economic crisis of the 1990’s, its caudillo tradition emerges reinvigorated.

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