Support wanes for Argentina's 'Hillary'

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's approval has dropped hard in her first six months.

By , Staff writer

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    Pilloried by the press? President Fernández de Kirchner commemorated Revolution Day in Salta, Argentina, on Sunday.
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When Argentina's President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner took on farmers who blocked highways after heftier export taxes were announced recently, she made her position clear. "Picketers of abundance," she dismissed them, not hiding the disdain in her voice.

Many of her supporters cheered the former senator on against the agribusiness barons said to be fomenting the strikes. But her obstinacy, in the wake of food product shortages and price increases, also provoked the largest anti-government protests in Buenos Aires since the 2001 crisis that led to financial collapse here.

"I voted for her, and this is not the person I voted for," says Polonia Gomez, a lifelong Buenos Aires resident, shaking her head. "She's overbearing."

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"She's haughty," says Patricia Maldonado, a nurse in Buenos Aires. "I can't stand her tone."

Ms. Fernández de Kirchner – dubbed by some the Hillary Clinton of Latin America – easily glided into the presidential palace last fall on the heels of the popularity of her husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner. But nearly six months into her term – after an ongoing dispute with farmers that was reignited Tuesday, rows with the media, fears of looming economic troubles, and a feisty style that many say is excessively confrontational – her popularity has plummeted, according to several polls.

Voters sought the robust economic growth that her husband oversaw, guiding his country out of its crippling economic woes, but at the same time, they wanted a leader who was more of a diplomat on the world stage and a woman who could reach consensus with the various factions within Argentinean society.

What they now say is that they got neither – and economic troubles to boot.

"A lot of people thought there'd be new politics, that she'd work better with the opposition, but what we really see is a direct continuation of the presidency of Nestor Kirchner," says Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University who advises the US government.

According to Buenos Aires pollster Jorge Giacobbe, her approval rating fell from 42 percent upon taking office in December to 23 percent today. Other polls show a similar decline, which Mr. Kirchner called "fake" last week.

To be sure, timing is not necessarily on her side. Economists have long questioned whether Mr. Kirchner's high-growth policies coupled with price caps can last in the long term. While the gross domestic product has grown at an average of 8 percent over the past five years, today Argentina faces an inflation rate estimated to be up to 25 percent – even though officially it's 9 percent. (The official statistics are widely discredited by independent economists.)

Fernández de Kirchner's administration has been accused of squandering resources on patronage and public spending in the height of a commodities boom. Rosendo Fraga, a political analyst in Buenos Aires, says she can correct inflation but that she's shown no sign of moving toward unpopular measures, such as raising interest rates or letting the peso appreciate.

As concerns mount – with reports that middle-class Argentines are buying US dollars to insulate themselves against a currency crash – her biggest crisis to date has been the farmers' strike, which ignited in March after she announced variable increased taxes on soybeans and sunflower-seed exports to over 40 percent, from a current fixed rate of 35 percent. Her government says the policy is to more fairly distribute wealth and make sure domestic food prices remain low. But Argentines took to the streets.

Farmers called a third strike in just two months over the export taxes on Tuesday; they will stop selling grain and livestock until next week.

She has consistently accused the media of painting only one side of the story – an escalation of a battle that began with her husband's administration. "Inflation, the conflict with the agricultural sector, and the conflict with the mass media have tarnished her popularity," says Mr. Fraga.

Relations with the US have cooled as well, especially in the wake of a scandal over alleged illegal campaign financing from Venezuela. She dubbed the inquiry, prompted by the US, "a garbage operation." Instead, Fraga says, she has cozied up to Venezuela's lefist leader Hugo Chávez.

When she was elected as president – with Michelle Bachelet governing in neighboring Chile – there were high hopes that this would usher in a new era for women in Latin America's traditional macho society. It is a prospect that still thrills many of her supporters.

"It makes me proud to have a woman as president," says Silvia Jimenez, who runs a tourist stand at an airport in Buenos Aires, "especially a woman with so much training, who has such a good image."

But some of that expectation has abated, especially because analysts and residents alike have made a public sport of guessing which one of the two is really governing the country today.

When referring to the presidency, analysts don't call her "Mrs. President," but refer disparagingly to "The first couple."

For Mr. Giacobbe, that could actually hurt women's status. "She is sitting in the seat, but not governing," he says. "It's not the best image for the evolution of women."

Fernández de Kirchner, like President Bachelet, has said that she has been judged more harshly for being a woman, particularly during the farmer's strike. Many, supporters and critics alike, agree. Even though gender barely came up as an issue during the presidential election, it could hurt her now, says Dionisio Carrizo, a small food store owner. "For being a woman, she is more vulnerable up against an association of men," he says, referring to farmers but adds unions to the list. "This is a macho country."

Ms. Gomez disagrees. She says she voted for Kirchner precisely because she represented strong women like herself but has since become totally disillusioned. "This is not a strong woman," she says. "A strong woman brings people to dialogue."

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