In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: Four top scenarios for Argentine leader

Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s head surgery this week, which according to government officials will force her to rest until after key Oct. 27 congressional elections, has fueled all kinds of speculation about her country’s — and her own — future.

Already before her apparently successful surgery Tuesday to remove a blood clot from her head, Fernández’s ruling party was expected to lose badly in the congressional elections. That would thwart Fernández’s chances to change the constitution and seek reelection in 2015.

Now, speculation ranges from her recovering politically and finishing her term to her possibly choosing — for medical and political reasons — to step down and call early presidential elections. Among the possible scenarios:

•  The “Fernández recovers” scenario: According to this theory, Fernández’s ruling party does better than expected in the Oct. 27 elections, thanks to a “compassion effect’’ toward the ailing president. And her four-week-long medical rest period would save her from the embarrassment of losing the congressional elections, since she won’t be able to campaign for ruling party candidates.

Under this scenario, Fernández could win enough seats in Congress to remain a strong president until the end of her term, and perhaps become a powerful political figure beyond 2015, even if she can’t get reelected.

Skeptics say, however, that Fernández won’t benefit from a compassion vote, as she did after her late husband Nestor Kirchner died in 2010. The economy is doing much worse now, and Vice President Amado Boudou — who is acting as interim-president — is one of Argentina’s most unpopular politicians.

A poll of voters in Buenos Aires by the daily Clarín on the day of Fernández’s surgery showed that 61 percent of those surveyed said the president’s medical leave will have no impact on the congressional vote, while 15 percent said it will benefit the government, and 12 percent said it will benefit the opposition.

•  The “nothing happens” scenario: Fernández’s party loses the Oct. 27 elections, as most polls anticipate, and Fernández will muddle through the end of her term. She may try to continue strangling the private sector, and blaming business leaders and the media for the country’s steady downward course despite having benefitted from the biggest commodity export bonanza during her period.

“If she recovers, we’ll most likely see continuity, with growing government controls over the economy,” says Daniel Kerner, of the Eurasia Group consulting firm in Washington D.C.

•  The “constitutional succession” scenario: Fernández’s medical and political problems grow, and — perhaps under pressure from her children, or not wanting to defy her doctors’ orders like her late husband did before his death — she decides to step down. She would try to leave a close ally in charge, but that person would most likely not be Boudou. In addition to being unpopular, he faces several investigations for corruption scandals, and would thus have a hard time running the country. Fernández would ask Boudou to resign in favor of some other politician down the constitutional succession line.

•  The “early elections” scenario: Fernández’s health fails to improve, the country’s economic woes keep worsening, and she doesn’t have the physical energy to fight on. She decides to call early elections, hoping to help one of her own party’s politicians win.

“The market seems to be anticipating a regime change,” says Alberto Bernal, of Bulltick Capital Markets, noting that the Buenos Aires stock exchange has risen 6 percent since the August primary elections in which Fernández’s party did badly, and more than one percent since Fernández’s head surgery.

“If the president’s convalescence lingers longer than expected, Boudou would not be able to succeed her, and any change would be in a direction of a more business-friendly government,” Bernal says.

My opinion: The most likely scenario will be the “nothing happens” one, followed by the “constitutional succession” one.

Either way, Argentina has a hyper-presidential political system, and the outcome of its latest drama will depend more on medical and psychological factors, than political ones. More than ever in recent times, the country’s future will depend on what goes on in its president’s head.

The best possible outcome would be what an Argentine follower responded when I asked on Twitter what is likely to happen next in the country: “Nothing. I hope she recovers, ends her term peacefully, and allows us not to make another mistake,” the message said.

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

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