Argentina's latest strongman?

In just two weeks, President Kirchner has begun big reforms, but some say he is simply consolidating his own power.

Argentina's new president, Nestor Kirchner, is surprising his compatriots with the speed with which he is asserting control.

While most expected him to step gingerly onto the country's center stage, since taking the oath of office May 25 he has:

• purged the leadership of the unpopular military, police, and intelligence services.

• launched an attack on the powerful Supreme Court, prompting his supporters in Congress to start preparing impeachment proceedings against several justices; and

• initiated moves just this week to strip former President Carlos Menem, whom he defeated for the presidency, of his remaining power within the Peronist party, the country's most powerful political organization. This is seen as an attempt to finally end the war within the party that has poisoned the nation's politics for more than a decade.

So far, Kirchner's vigor has proved popular in a country desperately seeking strong leadership. Eighteen months of chaos saw five presidents come and go, each unable to prevent an economic collapse that has left 60 percent of the population in poverty.

But while most observers here see the need to rid various institutions of the corruption and favoritism that became endemic under Mr. Menem's rule in the 1990s, concerns are growing that Kirchner intends to swap the system of control Menem built with his own more austere brand of leadership.

Gonzalo Arguello, a director at Citizens for Change, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to institutional reform, says that while the new president is already behaving like a traditional Argentine strongman, or caudillo, this in and of itself is not automatically a bad thing.

"Right now in Argentina, this approach could be valuable if the caudilloism comes with a vision and a real desire for consolidating democracy with strong institutions," he says. But Argentina's problem historically has been an obsession with personality at the expense of process, according to Mr. Arguello, who says it is too early to tell if Kirchner is genuinely committed to reforming the institutions or if he is just attempting to increase his own power over them.

Kirchner's move against the country's Supreme Court demonstrates reasons for both optimism and concern. The court is widely seen as a corrupt throwback to the Menem administration, with a built-in majority ready to do the bidding of the former president. Last year, an attempt to reform the court failed when it threatened to rule against the government on crucial cases if impeachment proceedings continued. Kirchner says he will not back down in his determination to reform the court.

But some opposition parties and observers are concerned that Kirchner's attack on the court is simply to increase his own power. They are demanding that Kirchner not simply replace the pro-Menem majority with one loyal to him; he did something comparable right after being elected governor of the province of Santa Cruz in 1991. Back then, he packed the local supreme court with loyalists in order to overturn a ban on governors being reelected. He went on to rule for 12 years in what critics say was an efficient but authoritarian administration.

For others, Kirchner's attempts to play the caudillo on the national stage carry a different set of risks.

"In Argentina, we have the myth of the strongman in the presidency who is going to be able to do things," says Felipe Noguera, a political consultant based in Buenos Aires. The real power in Argentina - especially when it comes to controlling the purse strings - lies with the governors, according to Noguera, setting up false expectations that the president can ride in and save the day.

So far, Kirchner has excluded supporters of the powerful Peronist governors from posts in his administration after they remained neutral during his struggle against Menem. This lack of support highlights the political vulnerability currently masked by Kirchner's bold start.

During his campaign, he was heavily dependent on the support of his predecessor, Eduardo Duhalde. Even then, Kirchner won just 22 percent of the vote in April's first round of voting before being denied a popular mandate in the runoff when Menem pulled out of the race.

Analysts say even if the runoff had gone ahead, Kirchner's likely victory would have said more about Menem's unpopularity than any widespread support for the Patagonian.

All this means the new president has to build his own mandate while in office, and quickly: In the past 30 years, only two of Argentina's 12 presidents - military dictator Jorge Videla and Menem - have managed to complete their full terms of office.

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