Several thousand people took to the streets in Buenos Aires and other large cities throughout Argentina on April 18. The protests were organized primarily through social media but received support from political parties and trade unions that oppose the government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. The main goal of the protest was to reject the government's proposed reforms of the judicial system. But they come at a time of growing social unrest due to a slowing economy, pervasive inflation, increasing capital controls and accusations of corruption against the Casa Rosada. The protests are also a response to the growing divide between the government and the Argentine middle class, the main group that brought Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to power ten years ago.
Nestor Kirchner, Fernandez's late husband, came to power in an unusual way. He was one of three Peronist candidates who were running for office and he finished second in the April 2003 elections. But he became president a few weeks later after the winner — former President Carlos Menem — decided not to participate in the runoff election. Despite his initially weak support, Kirchner quickly gained popularity with policies based on economic nationalism, prosecution of military-era human rights violations and a strong criticism of the country’s "traditional powers," which according to the government range from landowners to mainstream media. These policies were attractive to middle class Argentines, who generally did not support Peronism.
Kirchner’s protectionist policies were benefited by the low cost of international energy products and the high cost of agricultural commodities, Argentina’s main export. The president also took advantage of a weak and fragmented political opposition and expanded government influence on the media.
Kirchner and Fernandez's rise to power took place in the context of the collapse of neoliberal policies throughout South America between the late 1990s and the early 2000s. During those years, the economic liberalization policies that were implemented in varying degrees throughout the region led to economic and political crises in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.
Because Argentina is among those countries, Kirchner belongs to the same political generation as former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and Bolivian President Evo Morales. These presidents came to power after periods of social unrest and institutional instability, though Brazil was an exception. Each sought to put the state back at the center of the economy after years of privatizations and cuts in public spending. Most combined a nationalist rhetoric with a strong spending in welfare and subsidies. The period when all these leaders came to power is a reflection of the interconnectedness between most South American countries.
A decade later, "Kirchnerism" — led by Fernandez since 2007 — is going through an existential crisis. Interventionist economic policies that quickly pulled Argentina from its debacle a decade ago have led to high inflation and forced the country to implement currency controls. The international economic slowdown is taking its toll in Argentina, and the network of subsidies upon which the Kirchner government was built (which range from energy to public transportation) is becoming increasingly expensive to maintain.
Argentina now has higher levels of employment and economic activity than a decade ago. The welfare policies applied first by Nestor Kirchner and then by Fernandez helped thousands of Argentines to improve their economic situation after the deep crisis in 2001. However, Argentina is more polarized politically than it was 10 years ago, as evidenced by the frequent protests for and against the government. Most important, the advancement of the executive branch over the legislative and judicial powers in the past decade has weakened democracy in Argentina.
Almost halfway through her second term, Fernandez faces the challenge of finding a suitable successor to sustain her political and economic policies or, alternatively, of amending the Constitution to remain in power so she can oversee this difficult task herself. Either of these goals will be difficult to achieve. After a decade of populist policies, the weaknesses in Kirchner and Fernandez's economic and political model are becoming increasingly difficult to hide.