The long-awaited end of the trial of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for giving public works contracts to an underling, who then let her have a chunk of the profits he made, had less of an impact than her telling the world that she would not run for anything in the forthcoming elections. Unlike the verdict itself – six years behind bars, plus a permanent ban on her holding political office, and also what could be seen as a billion-dollar fine she is theoretically obliged to pay – her alleged unwillingness to stand for election did come as a surprise. As was immediately pointed out, if she sticks to her word, late next year she will lose the parliamentary privileges that save eminent politicians from suffering the indignities lesser beings in a similar situation are prone to experience. Without them, she would in all likelihood have been clapped in jail some time ago.
So, what was she thinking? Perhaps she believes that her many followers will be sure to rise in rebellion if anyone tries to handcuff her and put her inside, or, on hearing the verdict, she felt so distraught that she simply wanted to tell the rest of the world to go to hell and leave her alone. Whatever it was, and her behaviour at the time showed she had been shaken by what was a far milder sentence than many had predicted, she did manage to unsettle both her own adherents, who had fantasised about her returning to the Pink House on a tidal wave of popular support, and her enemies, who had grown accustomed to seeing her as the great bogeywoman they could use to frighten fence-sitters into voting for them.
Just as surprising was Cristina's apparent decision to put an end to her political career by refusing to seek any elective post was the lacklustre initial reaction of the Kirchnerite faithful to the three judges’ ruling. “The people” did not go on a rampage by staging a repetition of what happened on October 17, 1945, when a huge throng forced the military regime to restore Juan Domingo Perón to office. Though there were a few small demonstrations led by notorious rabble-rousers such as Luis D’Elia, they barely attracted notice. While it may be assumed that in the coming weeks trade-union heavies and “picket” bosses will stage big marches in which they allude to her problems with the law (because street theatre is the only thing they are any good at), so far fears that were a court to sentence Cristina to a spell in jail for corruption on an industrial scale it would detonate a devastating “social explosion” seem to have been exaggerated.
Their awareness that Cristina’s charisma is fading fast must be the reason her supporters, including the professionally militant members of La Cámpora who have prospered mightily thanks to her patronage, have preferred to bide their time before organising the mass protests they have been promising. As a result of the Kirchnerite government’s crass mismanagement of an economy which was already in a bad state, much of the population is in a very sour mood, but an attempt to turn public discontent with things as they are into a defence of the person who has done more than anyone to make them that way could easily backfire, with the Kirchnerites and their allies colliding with crowds shouting “lock her up.”
Ever since her late husband, Néstor Kirchner, set about appropriating large amounts of public money for his own purposes, as he did immediately after becoming governor of Santa Cruz Province, Cristina’s personal fate has depended on her ability to acquire and then retain political power. In this endeavour she was remarkably successful for long enough to dissuade judges, public prosecutors, and, needless to say, most of her fellow politicians from taking an interest in her evidently criminal financial activities, but for her, time is running out. Despite her vigorous efforts, she failed to “reform” the judicial system by politicising it to such an extent that it would grant her the immunity she craved.
As Cristina’s poll ratings dropped, the country’s creaky judicial apparatus, which for well over a decade had refused to budge, started working again. Without the protective shield that was hers when it was taken for granted that she was by far the most powerful politician in the land, there is not much standing between her and either a prison cell or house arrest in her Patagonian estate unless, as well could happen, it gets confiscated by the authorities who, the court ruled, can demand that she hand back about a billion dollars of the money she and her accomplices made off with when the going was good. There is also the probability that other cases in which she is involved go badly for her and for her son Máximo and daughter Florencia. Though many feel it would be unfair to make that young lady pay for the sins of her parents, she could find it difficult to prove she was just an innocent bystander.
As long as she is vice-president, Cristina can cock a snook at the Judiciary, but after her term ends she will depend on her ability to persuade enough politicians that it would be foolish for them to take what the judges have to say too literally. Her chances of doing this for very long are slim. Some of Cristina’s supporters may be so devoted to her that they will continue to stand by her, no matter what happens in the next few months, but others will have decided that she no longer deserves their sympathy. Exactly what goes on in the minds of such individuals is hard to say, but people who for years had been in thrall to a political cause which, they finally realised, led nowhere, are liable to turn virulently against those they can blame for deceiving them. It is therefore perfectly feasible that, before too long, Cristina’s once imposing political capital dwindles almost to vanishing point, as did Carlos Menem’s 20 years ago. Menem, it may be remembered, bestrode Argentine politics like a colossus for over a decade but then, almost overnight, he became a despised non-person. Unless Cristina is very lucky, much the same could happen to her.