(IPS) – The death of former Argentine President Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) Wednesday brought to an end the political partnership he formed with his wife, President Cristina Fernández. Now all eyes are on her. After he was elected with a mere 22 percent of the vote when his rival pulled out of the second round of the election, Kirchner set out to fulfill an agenda that included longstanding demands by a population impoverished by years of recession and the 2001 economic collapse, as well as demands by groups fighting the impunity surrounding the human rights crimes of the 1976-1983 dictatorship and the corruption of the armed forces and the judiciary.
His economic policies, supported by booming international demand for commodities, brought to an end the country’s long recession and the most severe debt default in the history of this South American country. He swapped a large part of the sovereign debt and paid off the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and swiftly brought down the soaring poverty and unemployment rates.
An overhaul of the Supreme Court did away with the bad reputation that tarnished the entire judiciary. And Kirchner’s government pushed through the adoption of international human rights treaties and the repeal of the amnesty laws and pardons that stood in the way of bringing to trial those accused of human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship.
He also carried out a purge of the country’s military and police leadership.
However, his administration was criticised for excess use of emergency decrees, with which he frequently bypassed the legislative process, and was shaken by several corruption scandals involving government officials.
But Kirchner built up a strong leadership that enabled him to name his wife — and right-hand woman — then-senator Fernández, as his chosen successor in the 2007 presidential elections.
Once Fernández took office, Kirchner did not limit himself to being just the president’s husband. Besides holding a seat in the legislature, he was head of the governing Justicialista (Peronist) Party and was named first secretary general of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).
The former president’s influence in the new administration was so great that President Fernández’s challenge now is to demonstrate that his death does not mark the end of an era and will not jeopardise the stability of the government.
The new political scenario could weaken Fernández, who has over a year left in her term. But it could also strengthen her, if she manages to build a new leadership style of her own.
Kirchner, 60, had a heart attack Wednesday morning while at home with his wife in their hometown of El Calafate in the southern province of Santa Cruz. He died in the local hospital.
What lies ahead “is a critical juncture for gauging the president’s hold on leadership,” but what is being seen now “is an enormous underestimation of her influence,” political scientist Carla Carrizo at the Catholic University of Argentina told IPS.
In Carrizo’s view, the country’s “institutional continuity is not at risk, and Fernández has an opportunity to build a new leadership style, broader and less sectarian than that of Kirchner.”
However, the public expressions of mourning already indicate that “politicians and social organisations have a paternalistic attitude with regard to what might happen.”
The analyst was referring to remarks by political leaders supporting Fernández’s ability to continue governing, as well as to statements by others who stressed that Kirchner was irreplaceable.
“Our country needs that man so much,” human rights activist Estela de Carlotto said, visibly moved. “Someone indispensable has been lost.” Carlotto is head of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, one of the civil society organisations close to the ruling faction of the Peronist Party.
Lawyer Natalia Gherardi, director of the Latin American Justice and Gender Group (ELA), pointed out that Fernández “is a political figure in her own right,” even if many of the decisions by her government were reached jointly with Kirchner because “they were a power duo.
“I hope she won’t have to face greater challenges, above and beyond her personal grief and mourning,” she told IPS. “She was a respected political figure even before he designated her as the candidate to succeed him.”
Although “it was regrettable that she was hand-picked, which undermined her legitimacy,” Fernández “has power of her own, and can recover from this,” Gherardi said.
She added that she does not believe substantial changes will occur in the government.
But other observers believe questions have been raised with respect to the direction that the president will now take — whether she will continue to base her government on support from factions in the Peronist Party, the labour unions and social organisations, or will build a new, broader support base.
“The president should design a formula for governance, a style of her own, and if she is interested in projecting her leadership into the future (beyond the 2011 elections), she will have to build a leadership that is independent of the current coalition,” Carrizo said.
To do that, she would have to win support from new groups in Congress, which is highly fragmented, within an overall context of polarisation between the government and the opposition.
Although there are as yet no clear-cut candidates for the October 2011 presidential elections, opinion polls showed that the president and her husband were in the lead, with over 30 percent support each, far ahead of other hopefuls.