BUENOS AIRES -- Almost three weeks after the election of Argentine Pope Francis, the euphoria over his designation — or “Francismania’’ — has unleashed a wave of Catholic fervor in Argentina. But there is a growing debate over whether it will help or hurt this country’s leftist-populist government.
There is no question that Francis has become the most beloved figure in Argentina’s recent political history.
Unlike late first lady Evita Peron — who was loved by many and despised by many others — it’s hard to find anybody who is not happy about his election here. During a visit to Argentina last week, I didn’t come across one single person — of any religion — who is not enthusiastic about the new pope.
Hardly a day goes by without a new anecdote about his humbleness making the front pages.
People are still relishing the recent headline about the pope’s personal call to his newspaper delivery kiosk in Buenos Aires to ask that his daily newspaper delivery be discontinued — “seriously, I’m calling you from Rome,” the pope had to insist to the incredulous newspaper vendor — or when he personally called his dentist in Buenos Aires to cancel a pending appointment.
The pope enjoys an unprecedented 90 percent approval rating, according to a soon-to-be-released poll. Comparatively, most polls show President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s popularity rate at about 40 percent.
Outside the Buenos Aires cathedral, memorabilia vendors are selling Pope Francis T-shirts, Pope Francis calendars, Vatican flags and other trinkets.
On Thursday, during a visit to the Church of Nuestra Señora de las Nieves in the middle-class neighborhood of Liniers, Rev. Adolfo Granillo Ocampo, the local priest, told me that he has seen a 30 percent increase in church attendance since the pope’s election. “There is a generalized feeling of euphoria over the pope,” the priest told me.
But when it comes to how “Francismania” will affect Fernández’s apparent bid to change the constitution to seek another new reelection, opinions are more divided.
One group of thought says there will be a “Francis effect” that will help Fernández’s party win October’s congressional elections and change the constitution, because the pope’s election has helped lift the public mood, diverting attention from rising inflation, record crime rates and fears of a new economic crisis.
Fernández, who had strained relations with the pope when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires — her late husband, former President Nestor Kirchner, once labeled the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as “the head of the opposition” — has made a political U-turn and now publicly joins the generalized joy over his designation.
The smiling pictures of Fernández and the pope during his inauguration in the Vatican will now help the president, according to this school of thought.
A second group of political analysts believe the “Francis effect” will neither help nor hurt Fernández.
“This pope will change the world, but he won’t be able to change Argentina,” political analyst Rosendo Fraga told me, only half jokingly.
Fraga noted that since the pope’s election, Fernández has not ended her attacks against independent media, or against her political rivals, despite the new pope’s historic calls for dialogue and political tolerance.