President of Argentina's Wife Elected as Successor

Argentina's Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner will succeed her husband as President in December. Kirchner is often compared to former first lady and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. Jude Webber, a journalist based in Buenos Aires compares the Argentinean political landscape to the one in North America and breaksdown the gender factor.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, our financial guru Alvin Hall on insuring your home against wildfires or kitchen fires or hurricanes or high winds.

But first, Argentina's Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. She's been compared to that country's former first lady, Eva Peron, and also to a former first lady of the U.S., Hillary Clinton, the U.S. senator and now presidential candidate.

Kirchner will be the next president of Argentina, taking the reins in December from her husband, Nestor Kirchner. The voting results for the new president were released Sunday night.

CRISTINA FERNANDEZ DE KIRCHNER: (Foreign language spoken)

MARTIN: Jude Webber joined us from Buenos Aires. She's a correspondent for the Financial Times. Welcome.

Ms. JUDE WEBBER (Correspondent, Financial Times): Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's victory came as no surprise. She'd been leading in the polls for weeks. To what do you account for the results? Is it name recognition as the first lady? Is it people are pleased with the job her husband's doing? Is she just a great candidate?

Ms. WEBBER: To a large extent, the people are very pleased with the job her husband's done in terms of turning the economy around. We've had more than four years of very strong growth, more than 8 percent here. And they're members of the Peronist Party and their power base is among the poorest people in the society. They've really made very strong pitches during the campaign to this sector of society. And so those are the people who are rewarding her husband for improving their finances, improving their lot.

And that explains her base. Because when you look at the opposition candidates, they really accounted for more of the middle class voters. The lady who came second, Elisa Carrio, she scored very well in the cities. And, in fact, Cristina Fernandez lost in the capital city and also in the second biggest city, Cordoba.

MARTIN: Now obviously, we're very interested in gender, in part, because we have a credible female candidate for president here in the U.S., and I wanted to know what role gender played in this campaign. I mean, one could see where it could be a negative for her being the wife of the current president. People might object to it.

Ms. WEBBER: Yeah, I mean, it hasn't played a huge role in the campaign. I mean, issues like abortion are just completely taboo here. So they haven't been part of the campaign of any candidate. But she has deliberately brought up the women's issue, the women's card in some of her speeches. And, in fact, in her victory speech last night, she said, you know, she wanted to make a particular appeal to women. She's highlighted in the past the particular qualities that women have, that they do things differently, that they have to be multitaskers and bring up the home as well as succeed in public life and things.

So she's - again, poorer voters tend to see that probably she's very glamorous and, you know, with her impeccable clothes and makeup. And they tend to like that. They think that she's projecting very strong image abroad and that she, you know, she looks great.

Some of the upper classes who don't really like her anyway think that she spends too much time on her appearance and she's a bit frivolous. But I think that - she's always said that, you know, the fact that she looked nice and spends time in her appearance isn't something that should be held against her. And the real reason that people take issue in that is that they don't like the policies that she brings up.

MARTIN: Now I don't want to take the metaphor too far, but as the wife of the current president, will she have any honeymoon in office? Because if her presidency is seen as a continuation of the prior administration, will people give her any space to make her own mistakes?

Ms. WEBBER: I think it's a very difficult one. I mean, she takes office in December. Between now and December, I think people are going to be very hungry to find out what her policies are, who her cabinet's going to be.

And there are some very pressing issues - inflation is one of them, energy shortages, power cuts, the possibility of power cuts if they don't - if we don't get more electricity-generating capacity. And I think these are issues that are not going to wait very long. And so from that side, she won't have a very long honeymoon with voters.

But on the other hand, she takes office in December and then the country goes into the summer holiday, so, I mean, maybe January will be a bit quieter. But then when people come back from their holiday, she'll be straight into collective bargaining. And so I think she, you know, very early on, within a few months, she will have to deliver some quite concrete results.

MARTIN: And, of course, current President Kirchner maintained a close relationship with the other left-of-center governments in the region, and particularly Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Is her foreign policy likely to be any different? You know, we've heard that she's interested in closer ties with the U.S., but it's hard to see how you could do both.

Ms. WEBBER: Yeah, I mean, I think she's been quite careful. She has courted closer ties with U.S., and I think if Hillary Clinton is elected, then that will become something that she would focus on more. And…

MARTIN: Why?

Ms. WEBBER: …she has - they have a lot in common. They're both senators. They're both lawyers. And I think she realizes the need to get Argentina's image back on the international stage, because Argentina has really been cut off internationally since the crisis of 2001 and 2002 when they - there was that enormous debt crisis in the currency devaluation.

So I think that's part of her strategy, is to raise Argentina's international profile. With Venezuela, Argentina still depends on Venezuela to some extent. Do you know they - Venezuela has bought a lot of Argentine bonds. And Argentina still relies very heavily on financial aid from Venezuela. So I think that she's being very careful not to, you know, not to appear too friendly and not to appear too cool.

And one of the immediate foreign policy challenges that will be facing her is Uruguay. It was interesting that the Uruguayan president was one of the first leaders to call to congratulate her on her victory. And they might even see each other at a summit in Chile next week.

Of course, the backdrop to the difficult relationships that Argentina and Uruguay have had in the last few months is the fact that Uruguay is building an enormous pulp mill plant. In fact, it's built now. It's a Finnish company, Botnia, that have built this. And it's ready to open pretty much any day now. And this is on the banks of a river that Argentina and Uruguay both administer together. And Argentina fears that it might be polluting. So this has really paralyzed relations between the two countries. And I think it'll be interesting to see what she does to overcome those problems and to normalize those relations between two countries that, up until now, had been very friendly neighbors.

MARTIN: I think you pointed out, too, that Cristina de Kirchner has a long political career. She's a senator - three times elected - but she did not participate in a single debate during the campaign. Is that accurate?

Ms. WEBBER: No she didn't. And she's - I mean, she - over the past few years, she's been very, very media shy. She hasn't wanted to do that. And it's interesting that she didn't want to participate in a debate, because she's a very strong orator. You know, so you wouldn't think that that would be something she will be reticent about. But yes, she's got a long legislative career.

She kept to the background quite a lot during her husband's administration, which I think voters liked that she didn't try to grab the limelight. They thought that that was proof that she, you know, she was serious that she had a career in her own right. So I think, you know, we'll just have to wait to see how she manages it when the boot's on the other foot and it's her husband who's the behind-the-scenes adviser.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That'll be an interesting story for people who are - what's he going to be called? What's his title going to be?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WEBBER: I don't know.

MARTIN: First gentleman?

Ms. WEBBER: Yeah.

MARTIN: First spouse?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: First arm candy? I don't know. Finally, Jude, I don't if you - if it's fair to compare, if this is something that interests you, but I'm wondering whether there's anything Hillary Clinton might be able to take away from Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's ability to put together that kind of victory.

Ms. WEBBER: I think Hillary Clinton has shown that she's, you know, she's running a very slick campaign. And so, I mean, I suppose the question might have been the other way around, really. I mean, Cristina - everybody here just calls her Cristina. What she's - what she did - her campaign was really very focused on foreign travel to start with. She, you know, she travelled to build bridges with other leaders and to position herself as the next president in their eyes.

And it was only really at the end of her campaign that she travelled around the country. And what she really hasn't spelled out, which I think in the U.S. election is much more explicit, is the detail of her policies. So that's something we're all waiting for now.

MARTIN: Jude Webber is a correspondent for the Financial Times. She joined us on the phone from her office in Buenos Aires. Jude, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. WEBBER: Thank you.

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