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Cristina Kirchner-Argentina's Indira Gandhi Bows Out

In many ways Argentina’s outgoing president Cristina Kirchner’s image closely resembled that of India’s own Iron Lady, the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Here are the similarities.

On 10 December, a significant chapter of a country’s political history came to an end. This country is an important part of the developing world, but elicits interest in India only once every four years when many of us are glued to TV screens to watch the Fifa World Cup.

One is talking about the Latin American nation of Argentina, which is preparing to bid farewell to its president of eight years, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Kirchner remains the country’s first directly elected woman president as well as the first to be re-elected. She presented herself as a leader with unbending principles and dominated Argentine politics for the past 12 years along with her late husband Nestor.

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The swearing-in ceremony on 10 December of the President-elect, Mauricio Macri, will formally draw the curtains on 12 years of Kirchnerism, but the focus of this article is not on the future political landscape of Latin America but the legacy of a leader hailed by her supporters as ‘The Iron Lady’ of Argentina.

Indeed, Kirchner’s image closely resembles that of our own Iron Lady, the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Consider the similarities:

Foreign Policy

Cristina Kirchner had an inimical relationship with the United States, preferring to ally with Russian, Chinese, Venezuelan and Cuban leaders. Indira Gandhi in the heyday of the Cold War openly allied herself with the USSR.

Cristina’s clash with Uncle Sam was the result of her rejection of settling with the American hedge fund establishments which rejected her late husband and former President Nestor’s debt restructuring plan.

She was even willing to fight the subsequent legal battle which pushed Argentina back into default in 2014. In a speech to the United Nations last year she condemned those hedge fund establishments as “economic terrorists” who were aiming to subvert the Argentine economy.

In one of the speeches she gave as part of a televised address to the nation, she went as far as accusing the US government of plotting to topple her government and probably assassinate her.

In our political discourse we have read about our Iron Lady fretting over the conspiracies hatched by the ‘Foreign Hand’. Her detractors accused her of being an arrogant interventionist, steering the country’s economy towards ruin in addition to making embarrassing and spiteful accusations.

But just as Mrs Gandhi received acclaim from her countrymen due to her bold leadership during the 1971 Bangladesh crisis and Indo-Pak war, Cristina was praised for being a decisive leader who was unlikely to bend under foreign pressure on issues of national interest.

Image and Perception

Often perception matters more than reality, and a leader’s legacy is more dependent on perception. And in this area, it seems Cristina Kirchner, like Indira Gandhi, had a positive image among her working-class supporters, who viewed both Lady Kirchner and her late husband as saviours of the economy after Argentina’s 2001 crisis and viewed her attacks on the US financial associations as indisputable evidence of her patriotism.

Much of her early goodwill stemmed from the actions of her late husband Nestor Kirchner (2003-2007), who as President turned the fortunes of the country in a positive direction even though he inherited a decrepit economy following what was at that time the largest sovereign debt default in history.

He did so by effectively meeting the thriving demand for agricultural exports from Argentina accompanied by his tough negotiations to restructure most of the country’s debt. Many Argentines expected this power-couple to dominate the country’s politics but Nestor’s sudden death due to a heart attack in 2010 put an end to such expectations.

Experts on Argentina unanimously credit her 2011 victory to her aggressively highlighting Nestor’s legacy.  And she did take steps to boost her popularity among core supporters. The Kirchnerist economic policies included re-nationalising many erstwhile privatised companies, leading to an increase in the number of jobs created. Unemployment hit its lowest level in 25 years.

This phenomenon has also caused poverty rates to be reduced to a considerable extent. However, certain observers explain that the happy result was also due to a parallel fall in the rate of the economically active population, since there are fewer people actively seeking employment due to government subsidies. The following chart from a Bloomberg report displays this phenomenon:

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Now her successor has to check if the subsidies as well as the other anti-poverty measures are worthy of retaining or whether it will burden the economy as it recently did it in Venezuela. In terms of inflation things are not smooth, as this report from The Economist states:

Inflation has plagued Argentina for much of the past decade; it still grew by an average of 5.6 percent from 2005-2013. Exchange and trade controls have long made it hard to get hold of primary materials, stifling production. But whereas in the past Argentina could maintain growth by propping up the peso and consumers’ purchasing power, falling foreign-exchange reserves mean it can no longer afford to do so.

The Bloomberg report mentioned earlier quotes economists who accused the government of manipulating data where they embroidered the peaks and understated instances of inflation.

But for many middle-class Argentines one step of her government is hailed as a blessing and that is the universal child allowance act which was passed by the Kirchner government in 2009.

Most of her supporters and even her critics accept it as the country’s most admired social policy. This act enabled the government to offer financial support to parents who are either unemployed or are working in the informal sector. But like any welfare policy its enduring effects on education and poverty are still uncertain.

Compared to Cristina’s achievements it is clear now that Indira Gandhi’ image was more due to successful propaganda. Her much debated populist policies didn’t make much of an impact, as these tworeports explain. The relevant excerpts are given below:

Bank nationalisation did little to alleviate poverty, though it did accelerate the pace of branch expansion. It also spawned bureaucratic cultures, widespread behest lending, pervasive inefficiency and frequent need for budgetary recapitalisation. Despite 25 years of financial sector reform, government- owned banks still dominate Indian banking and are still plagued by weak governance…Indira Gandhi’s severe tightening of labour laws in the emergency year 1976 , notably through the insertion of the highly restrictive chapter V(B) in the Industrial Disputes Act (further tightened in 1982), has hugely discouraged fresh employment in the organised sector, constraining its share in total employment to around 10-15 per cent, far below levels in comparable economies like China and Indonesia. These exceptionally restrictive laws have also stunted the development of medium and large-scale, labour-intensive manufacturing, thus undermining the most potent transmission belt between growth and employment generation….

Nonetheless even now the dominant propaganda surrounding the late Mrs Gandhi is that of a benefactor of the poor. Regarding Kirchner’s policies, only time will tell if they were effective or just plain hype.

Clash with Judiciary

One more area where both Kirchner and Gandhi were very similar was their clash with the judiciary.

In recent news reports, the opposition has accused Kirchner of interfering with the justice system, hindering any investigation linking the government, with criminal charges.  These cases range from the corruption cases involving ministers from her cabinet to the mysterious death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman.

Alberto Nisman was the Special Prosecutor in charge of the 1994 AMIA bombing investigation since 13 September 2004 (AMIA bombings refer to the attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association building on 18 July, 1994, which took the lives of 85 people and injured hundreds. It is till date Argentina’s deadliest bombing attack). In 2006, Nisman charged seven officials from the government of Iran, including its former President and Foreign Minister, as well as a senior Hezbollah leader, of planning and directing the attack.

According to Nisman, Iran created a “vast spy network” inside Argentina that gathered information, with the help of local helpers. In 2007, the general assembly of Interpol validated Nisman’s accusation and issued “red notices” for five Iranian officials, calling on member states to arrest them.

Initially Nisman had the determined support of Argentina and the then President Néstor Kirchner, who chose Nisman to supervise the prosecution. Even Cristina, who succeeded her husband in 2007, was known to have backed Nisman. During her Presidency’s early years, whenever Iran’s then President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, arrived to speak at the United Nations, Argentina’s diplomats, under her orders, would walk out. In 2011, while addressing the assembly Cristina stated

I am demanding, on the basis of the requirements of Argentine justice, that the Islamic Republic of Iran submit to the legal authority and in particular allow for those who have been accused of some level of participation in the AMIA attack to be brought to justice.

But from 2013, her government took some steps which Nisman claimed was trying to cover up the Iranian involvement. Earlier that year Kirchner’s government signed an MoU with Iran that ostensibly would have had the two countries jointly investigate the AMIA bombing. The then Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi argued that, according to the MoU, Interpol’s charges against the Iranian officials must be nullified.

The following year, an Argentine lower court declared in a ruling that the MoU was unconstitutional as it interfered with an independent judicial investigation. That ruling was then reviewed by a panel of three judges in the country’s highest criminal court, the Court of Cassation, which is second only to the Supreme Court in Argentina’s legal system.

However, one of the judges was removed by the Judicial Council without any explanation. The Judicial Council is accused of having a pro-government majority, since it was given powers to replace judges with appointees who can be selected from lists drafted by the Executive and approved by the Senate. These powers were part of the law that Cristina’s government drafted and legislated. It does away with existing rules for picking members of the magistrate council, the body that chooses and can impeach federal judges.

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Earlier in 2012, the Vice President Amado Boudou, was charged with illicit activities while acquiring the company responsible for the printing of the Argentinean currency.

Instead of cooperating, he accused the then-attorney general, Esteban Righi, of being involved in corruption, and pressured the prosecutor to drop his investigation. The following excerpt from this detailed report sums up Kirchner’s handling of the judiciary:

The president of the National Magistrates Association, Ricardo Recondo, summed up the situation perfectly: “The judge who investigates is persecuted; the judge who helps cover things up is rewarded.” For Recondo, “the country and democracy are under serious threat,” because “the government is guilty of many antidemocratic activities,” and “using democracy to destroy democracy.”

Back here in India Indira Gandhi went one step further in her fight against judiciary and its effect can be understood from this statement once made by scholar Arun Shourie-

Her legacy is a sort of continuous ruin; she did more than anyone else to destroy institutions in India….

As we can know from history, the High Court of Allahabad, on 12 June 1975, declared that Indira Gandhi won her Parliament seat by violating prevailing election laws and as a consequence banned her from running for any office for six years.

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She attempted a defence by unsuccessfully appealing to the Supreme Court. She then decided to incapacitate Indian democracy, by declaring an Emergency, imprisoning all her political rivals and critics, besides suspending fundamental rights.

Cristina didn’t go to that extreme but looking at her record it wouldn’t have been surprising had she emulated Mrs Gandhi. Overall the legacy of Cristina is slightly fairer in comparison to Indira Gandhi but it is undeniable that both women knew how to capture the imagination of their supporters and also how to silence their critics. Hence the term ‘Iron Lady’ is deserving for both.