Learning from Cristina

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, July 28, 2015


Unpopular Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet could learn a few lessons on political leadership from Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Because the Argentine president exercises a leadership that regularly places her at the centre of political controversies — she has earned bitter enemies but has also cultivated a large support base. Banned from running again — just like Dilma and Michelle — Cristina is still a central actor in the upcoming presidential election in Argentina. On the contrary, Dilma, with three-and-a-half years left of her term, and Michelle, with 30 months left in office, are closer to being lame ducks than the controversial leader of Argentina.


First elected in 2005, Bachelet completed a successful four-year term in office in 2010 and was easily elected for a second term in 2013. Riding on her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s popularity, Dilma was elected president of Brazil in 2010. She struggled to win re-election in late 2014. Cristina built a political career alongside her late husband Néstor Kirchner during the 1990s. When Néstor was elected president in 2003, Cristina served as first lady until she led her party’s list of legislative candidates, running to be senator for Buenos Aires province in the 2005 midterm elections in Argentina. She successfully ran for president in 2007 and, after her husband’s death in 2010, won re-election in 2011.


The three female presidents have led very different governments and have strikingly distinct personalities.


A physician, Bachelet championed market-friendly policies in her first administration and used the windfall profits from copper exports to strengthen the social safety net in her country. A motherly figure, she left office with 80 percent approval in 2010. After sitting out a term, she easily won the 2013 election on an ambitious platform which included the promise of a new Constitution and free university education for all Chileans. Since assuming office in 2014, her government has struggled to keep her promises. A slowing economy, unforced errors, corruption scandals (including one involving her eldest son) have brought her presidential approval down to 25 percent.


Rousseff, a technocrat, easily won in 2010 due to the popularity of the outgoing Lula, the popular president and leader of the Workers’ Party. Handpicked by Lula, Rousseff’s lack of charisma was not an obstacle to prevent her victory. An overheated economy and lack of structural reforms — a responsibility shared between her and her predecessor — the Brazilian economy showed signs of stress shortly after she took office. Street protests in 2013 and economic stagnation in 2014 almost cost her re-election in 2014. Corruption scandals and lack of leadership have deeply hurt her approval. With more than three years to go, the president increasingly looks like a lame duck. Some analysts have even suggested that she might not finish her term (either because of a corruption investigation or simply because she might not have enough support in Congress to get anything done in the remainder of her term).


Fernández de Kirchner is a far more controversial leader than Dilma or Michelle. The social and economic policies championed by her and her late husband since 2003 have been harshly criticized by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other lending institutions. By rejecting the policies of the Washington Consensus, embraced by Dilma and Michelle, the Argentine president has taken her country on a path deemed unsustainable in the long run by the IMF. Despite that, the country’s economy continues to survive — though it no longer thrives — and Cristina has emerged victorious as she wraps up eight controversial years in office. Her approval rating now stands around 49 percent, higher than in recent years and far better than Rousseff’s and Bachelet’s. As the presidential election race in Argentina is heating up, candidates are being especially careful not to run openly against CFK and her policies. After all, when one in two Argentines approve of their retiring president, campaigning against Fernández de Kirchner will not deliver many votes. Those who like her and dislike her have already made up their minds, while those with a neutral opinion are more interested in learning about ideas to face the challenges Argentina faces today, rather than hearing judgments on her last eight years was in power.


Controversial, opinionated, outspoken and always ready to pick a political fight, Fernández de Kirchner has cultivated a style which has left nobody indifferent. Argentines have strong views of their president. CFK might have many weaknesses but she is decisive. She takes risks and pushes her ideas with determination and stubbornness.


Rousseff and Bachelet could learn a lesson or two from Fernández de Kirchner’s style. Accused of lacking leadership and failing to decide on how to get their countries moving forward, the leaders of Brazil and Chile could learn from Cristina’s forthcoming and aggressive style. Given that Rousseff’s bureaucratic approach and Bachelet’s motherly and personable style are partly responsible for their low approval ratings, these two female presidents ought to take a look at their Argentine counterpart.


Ideologically, they are unlikely to embrace CFK’s economic policies — and that is a good thing — but politically, they could learn a lesson or two from the straightforward style championed by the outgoing president of Argentina.