Argentina: Mourning president has re-election edge

AP News
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Posted: Mar 30, 2011 12:18 PM
Argentina: Mourning president has re-election edge

The president is dressed entirely in black, the color of mourning that she has worn each day since the death of her husband five months ago.

On stage, Cristina Fernandez wipes away tears, recovers her composure and raises her arm in a victory sign. Cheers for her re-election fill the stadium, where a Peronist party celebration has turned into an homage to her spouse, former president and power broker Nestor Kirchner.

"I feel his force in every word, and he is definitely here with all of us," she told crowd packing the Huracan football stadium in her first huge political rally since Kirchner died of a heart attack on Oct. 27.

With this October's presidential elections looming for Argentina, Fernandez's grief for the loss of her lifelong partner has turned out to have political benefits, rallying backers, drawing sympathy and shielding her from attack even as she rises in the polls.

No one can doubt Fernandez's pain, but she has maintained a strict mourning far longer than required by modern protocols, and invokes Kirchner's memory in nearly every speech, though rarely by name. She speaks of what "He" would have done, or how "He" would feel to see her so supported.

Skeptics suggest she is using her mourning to political effect.

"At this point, this mourning is a strategy," says Mariel Fornoni, executive director of the Management & Fit consulting firm. "You can't go up against a widow. Nobody tries to go against her because it would be a losing game."

Ricardo Peculo, a specialist in Argentine funeral rites, compared Fernandez's fashion choice to the black arm band former Argentine strongman President Juan Domingo Peron wore long after the death of his wife Evita Peron.

If it is a strategy, it has brought results.

Shortly before Kirchner's death, 60 percent of Argentines surveyed disapproved of Ferndandez's performance. Many were fed up with her continuous conflicts with the country's business elite, and with the populist, big-government policies that had stoked divisions between Argentina's rich and poor.

Since his death, she has softened her rhetoric and made some conciliatory moves. Fernandez created a security ministry in response to crime worries, and moved quickly to head off the threat of a national transportation strike.

But those moves alone don't explain a sharp jump in popularity, to 57 percent the month after Kirchner died, according to Management & Fit. Another polling firm, Poliarquia, found in February that her positive image remained positive, at about 55 percent.

Fernandez is now the favorite to win on Oct. 23, even though she has refused to declare herself a candidate. Polls show 30 to 40 percent of likely voters support her, well ahead of about 10 other possible contenders. To win in the first round, a candidate needs at least 45 percent of the vote, or 40 percent if the second-place finisher is at least 10 points behind.

Fernandez also has been aided by an economy rising from the recession of 2009, neutralizing the negative impact of rapid inflation.

Still, people clearly feel "empathy for those who have suffered a loss, and Cristina is capitalizing on it," said Daniel Gutierrez, general director of the Argentine Political Marketing Association.

"Any detail of a public figure is not determined by chance," Gutierrez added. "In political communication, everything is part of the picture."

In the city of Buenos Aires, where voters have historically been averse to Kirchner, her image jumped to 60 percent approval in March, according to a poll by the Rouvier & Associates. Many of those surveyed praised "her fortitude and leadership."

"I don't think she's faking it. It's authentic. He was her lifelong partner, not just in politics. She's not exploiting (her mourning) as much as she could have," said Ramiro Blanco, 38, a clothing entrepreneur.

Others have doubts: "For me, she has stayed in mourning to show off, for the cameras. I find it hard to believe that a woman who says she loved her husband so much would put on such a show," said Silvina Caceres, 33, a clothing designer.

The power of mourning and death have a peculiarly enduring role in Argentine society, where in the early 20th century, a widow was expected to wear black for two years following their husband's death. Nowadays, however, most Argentines don't even bother to change from street clothes for funerals.

Peron declared 14 days of mourning for his popular wife Eva when she died in 1952, and Argentines formed vast lines to file past her coffin.

Eva Peron's remains were such a potent political symbol that soldiers who toppled Peron in 1955 seized the embalmed body, disfigured it and shipped it to Italy for burial under a false name. It was not returned until 1971.

Peron's own death in 1974, during his third term, became a rallying point for his backers. In 1987, people who were never identified opened his coffin and cut off his hands. Clashes erupted in 2006 when two groups of unionists battled for the honor of carrying his remains to a museum built in his honor.

Kirchner's death "led many people to acknowledge a sympathy with Kirchnerism," Gutierrez said.

"I believe his final act of service was also that 27th of October," Fernandez said at the football stadium. "We suddenly discovered how many things he had done and how few had been recognized. Pardon me, but I have to say it. It will break my heart if I do not say it."