Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has repeatedly said over the years in the course of lengthy speeches that she does not believe that there is any such thing as coincidence. She could be wrong there – could things like two of the first three United States presidents (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) both dying on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence be anything other than a coincidence? But what if she is right?
According to such disbelief, there cannot be anything accidental about the timing of Thursday’s hysterectomy – far from having anything to do with hysteria, it would then be a cold political calculation optimally cutting her losses from next weekend’s midterms. In her wildest fantasies she might dream of a sympathy vote (for a disorder in the same organ which led to Eva Perón “passing to immortality”) triggering a repeat of the 54 percent landslide for a recently widowed president a decade ago, although such expectations would be a huge stretch almost tantamount to a hysteria incompatible with her operation. But failing that, she would be exempted from joining the marshals of the expected defeat next Sunday on impeccable medical grounds, thus preserving a Teflon image intact for future electoral battles.
Yet this tactical absence could extend beyond this election night, extending to the 2023 general elections. Looking ahead, it seems impossible to envisage a set of policies which might transform defeat into victory – continuation of the current fiscally reckless path would only lead to further disaster like the recent PASO primary shattering this government, while the sacrifices imposed by fiscal prudence would lead to similar results to the previous 2019 PASO primary crushing the preceding administration. Far better to step aside and force President Alberto Fernández into the arms of the opposition, tagging both with the blame for a suicidal austerity from which she detaches herself as the defender of the people (which would be pretty similar to the logic underlying the original creation of the Frente de Todos ticket in 2019, whereby President Fernández would do the dirty work to pave the way for Máximo Kirchner or Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof as his successor in 2023).
The simplest way of implementing this strategy would be to follow the example of 1999-2000 Vice-President Carlos ‘Chacho’ Alvarez and just resign. But this move would carry an obvious snag for Cristina Kirchner – the loss of judicial immunity when facing a raft of corruption and other cases. Leaves of absence rather than a direct exit would square this circle perfectly – dodging any responsibility for unpopular decisions while retaining the legal immunity.
The above speculation would be a good example of Cristina Kirchner’s logic that there is no such thing as coincidence, despite which I do not accept that logic for a moment – neither the preventive surgery in Otamendi Hospital nor its timing strike me as being the basis of any new conspiracy theory, of which there are already far too many.
Argentine history has known 37 vice-presidents since 1854, of whom eight (including Juan Domingo Perón) have subsequently become president but the current occupant is unique – and not just because her vice-presidency preceded rather than followed her presidency like the others. A vice-presidential candidate naming a presidential running-mate rather than the other way round is absolutely unique in my newsroom experience for sure – and almost certainly in the totality of human history.
That newsroom experience includes nine of the 37 veeps. The first, Córdoba Radical Víctor Martínez (1924-2017), was a complete non-entity whose main function was to add inland balance to a ticket headed by Raúl Alfonsín from Buenos Aires Province (Chascomús). The reverse logic applied to Peronist Carlos Menem from La Rioja bordering on Chile – both of his chosen running-mates, Eduardo Duhalde and Carlos Ruckauf (both of whom were curiously even shorter than Menem’s diminutive 1.65 metres), came from the Buenos Aires half of the country to add balance and in both cases their ambitions extended beyond a largely ceremonial post to become governors of Argentina’s most important province and even national president (Duhalde).
Menem was followed by the Alliance, which (as its name might suggest) was a coalition government with the two halves of the presidential ticket belonging to different parties – Radical Fernando de la Rúa was seconded by dissident left-wing Peronist Chacho Alvarez from Frepaso. The latter’s impetuous resignation (over Senate bribery accusations even ahead of their investigation) torpedoed the coalition and thus destroyed the Alliance government even before the wheels came off convertibility. Graciela Fernández Meijide (wasted on an unsuccessful bid to control key Buenos Aires Province, which fell to Ruckauf) would have been a much better veep in every way as an institutionally respectful politician with a cool head.
Coming from a distant province like Menem, Santa Cruz Governor Néstor Kirchner in 2003 likewise looked to the Buenos Aires half of the country for balance, coming up with Daniel Scioli who came to govern BA Province like Duhalde and Ruckauf, missing out on the presidency in 2015. But having made that province the Kirchnerite base as from 2005, La Plata-born Cristina Kirchner was elected in 2007 with a running-mate who differed in party, gender and territorial base – outgoing Mendoza Radical governor Julio César Cleto Cobos (“Cristina, Cobos y vos” was the electoral slogan) who ended up blotting his copybook by casting a decisive Senate vote against increasing grain export duties and today is the leading opposition Congress candidate in Mendoza in next weekend’s midterms. The notorious Amado Boudou seconded Cristina in her second term (2011-2015).
Mauricio Macri broke with the tradition of a regionally balanced ticket with a running-mate from the same district (the Federal Capital) and party (his centre-right PRO) despite heading a coalition although at least differing in gender – Gabriela Michetti is Argentina’s only female vice-president to date never married to a president.
Meanwhile Cristina Kirchner remains a precarious president’s best insurance policy. If English King Charles II (1660-1685) scorned any risk of assassination by telling his unpopular brother James: “Never fear, nobody would ever think of killing me to make you king,” this little quip could cross space and time to today’s Argentina (at least as far as the opposition is concerned).