Wednesday, August 27, 2014
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King Menem's Farewell

Like ancient monarchs, Latin American caudillos believe they have been granted lifetime powers.

The last days of former president Carlos Menem's political career, furiously fighting his own political extinction, has offered a pathetic example of this tradition. If he couldn't win the May 18 th presidential run-off--and it was clear before the vote that some 70% of voters would reject him in favor of a virtual unknown--he would refuse to play.

So the old tyrant, surrounded by his bodyguards and weeping supporters, announced that he would withdraw from the race. The scene was Argentine magical realism: Menem, the old but tireless caudillo, kissing the hands of his followers as they cheered from this despoiled garden near the Tropic of Capricorn.

The caudillo who oversaw the glory days of the 1990's exited the race to save himself, to avoid a defeat, and to weaken Nestor Kirchner, the man from Patagonia who is now Argentina's 49 th president. Although the public's outrage at his tactics makes a comeback unlikely, Menem still dreams of retreating with his defeated troops and reshaping himself from an alternative power base.

Still, Menem's presence is not the greatest threat Kirchner faces. The real danger to the president-elect is Menem's legacy: a judiciary that is subordinate to political might, a system of political parties that cannot stay afloat financially without engaging in corruption, and economic chaos. The effects can be seen in a 17% unemployment rate, extraordinarily low salaries, and a high crime rate. The Argentina that once boasted the highest social mobility in all of Latin America no longer exists.

Nevertheless, beneath the turmoil and scandal of the last few days, one can glimpse positive signs. The country has tired of the popular but unreliable caudillo. Menem's predecessor as president, Raúl Alfonsin, won a pathetic 2.3% of the vote in the first round of the election. Menem's maneuvering notwithstanding, the polls show that the man twice elected president was at the end of his road. His tactics of the last week produced an array of indignant and amused critiques.

Although only time will tell, it's possible that Argentina's suffering has readied the country for a new, efficient kind of leadership. The man who will be president has not yet displayed any of the attributes of a caudillo. Kirchner, descended from European immigrants, has not captivated the masses, but he did capture the votes of an electorate with hopes and dreams for a government that can bring more jobs, assure better wages, and increase security against crime. If he can deliver, Argentines may be ready to bid farewell to the caudillo form of government that has dominated the country's history.

The difficulties Kirchner faces are enormous. The country's new leadership must renegotiate Argentina's debts. The IMF and other creditors are demanding economic adjustments to increase the fiscal surplus, including higher tariffs on privatized public services and a wage freeze for public employees. At the same time, Argentines and their leaders need to consolidate the budding economy, deal with social inequality, and reconstitute the political system and the integrity of the judiciary.

Kirchner appears ready to take on this difficult agenda. During his university days in the 1970's, his politics were shaped by the leftist militancy of Peronism. But both the passage of time and his political maturation as the governor of Patagonia have converted him into a European-style Social Democrat. True, Kirchner entered the campaign not so much to win as to prepare for the next presidential election, but as Menem's opponents fell, he captured the spotlight.

To succeed, Kirchner will need the energy and imagination of a great statesman. From the moment of victory, he will have scant time to put together a pact with the principal political forces that can sustain him. He will also immediately have to convince a skeptical populace, already hurting, that more sacrifices are needed. If he fails to get results quickly, his government may not last beyond six months. If, on the other hand, he experiences a quick series of successes--even small ones--he will have helped usher in a new era.

There have been moments of crisis in Argentina during which great movements have arisen. At the turn of the 20 th century, the Radical Party offered the middle class an electoral voice. In the middle of that century, when the country was industrializing, the Peronist Party functioned in much the same say for the working class.

These two historic moments were, however, dominated by two bosses: Hipólito Irigoyen and Juan Perón. Now that the Radical Party is agonizing over its role and Peronism is divided into three factions, perhaps Argentines will be able to construct a political option that relies on real leaders, and relinquishes caudillos.

But if Kirchner's presidency gives rise to yet more political frustration, then we Argentines will again make the mistake of looking for a caudillo who promises to answer all our prayers. Already, democracy has lost legitimacy here and social protest movements grow increasingly violent. It's possible that a new caudillo in different robes could lead the masses through yet another round of "magical nationalism," hating everything foreign and underscoring the dark side of globalization.

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