The first months of Cristina Fernández’s tenure as Argentinian president have shattered previous expectations of a smooth conjugal succession from her husband, Néstor Kirchner. After her landslide victory in October 2007—scoring 45 per cent to her nearest rival’s 23 to become the first woman to be elected leader of the countryfootnote1—it was widely assumed that Fernández would preside over business as usual, with no obvious shifts in policy. The reality has been more turbulent: the announcement in March 2008 of increased levies on agricultural exports sparked four months of protests that drew in not only large-scale agribusiness concerns and small to medium farmers, but also the middle classes in several major cities, who once again staged ‘cooking-pot’ demonstrations—cacerolazos—as they had during the crisis of 2001–02.

Amid substantial urban protests—a 200,000-strong march was held in May in the city of Rosario, for example—and roadblocks aimed at cutting off grain exports, the new president’s approval ratings plummeted, from 56 per cent in January to barely 20 per cent by the middle of the year. In July, the government’s attempt to get Congressional approval for the tax hike was dramatically defeated in the upper house: the 72 senators split evenly, and the decisive vote against the bill was cast by Fernández’s own vice-president, Julio Cobos. This high-level defection confirmed a string of others, as the government’s Frente para la Victoria coalition began to fragment, long in advance of the next parliamentary elections, due in October 2009.

The rapid escalation of tensions on the domestic scene is all the more surprising given the essential continuity in policy between Kirchner husband and wife: the new president made almost no changes to the cabinet in her first six months, for instance. But events since March of this year have brought the evaporation of the political and symbolic capital accumulated by Néstor Kirchner during his four years in power, thanks to his success in leading the country back to economic recovery. In that sense, Fernández’s difficulties seem to indicate the opening of a new period in Argentina, as the modes of rule set in place under her predecessor give way to a more unstable configuration. Much will depend on the wider economic conjuncture, and on how Fernández responds to recent setbacks. But an assessment of the legacies of Kirchner’s period in office furnishes a basis from which to gauge the country’s longer-term prospects.

Providing a balance sheet of Kirchnerism is not a straightforward task. While clearly far from being the recasting of Argentina’s political culture proclaimed by its partisans, neither was it a mere prolongation of the 1990s dispensation. In what follows, I will outline Kirchnerism’s characteristic features, noting both where it marked a break with the past and the elements of strong continuity. For if Kirchner can point to some genuine economic achievements and certain policy initiatives that qualitatively separate him from earlier administrations, his government otherwise presided over widening income inequalities and an increasing trend towards precarious forms of labour. His political praxis, meanwhile, was marked by repeated recourse to tactics of co-optation and clientelism, suggesting that the old order supposedly swept aside by the crisis of 2001–02 has clung to life, in altered guise; and that it may yet make a full recovery.

Néstor Kirchner came to power in 2003, in the wake of a deep economic crisis that had severely shaken the foundations of Argentine society. Thanks to the policy of peso–dollar convertibility adopted under Carlos Menem, the downturn on Wall Street after 2000 had an immediate and magnified impact on Argentina; capital flight intensified and the deficit grew, until by late 2001 default loomed. When President De la Rúa insisted on sticking to convertibility, and had his Finance Minister block withdrawals from savings accounts by imposing the corralito—‘little fence’—protests rapidly escalated. At the end of December, De la Rúa was forced to flee the Casa Rosada by helicopter, to be succeeded by four interim presidents in the space of twelve days. The tasks of abandoning convertibility and defaulting on Argentina’s debt—the largest sovereign default in history—were left to the caretaker government of Eduardo Duhalde, the Peronist candidate defeated in 1999.

The devaluation and default caused gdp to fall by 16 per cent in the first quarter of 2002; unemployment reached a peak of 23 per cent and real wages shrank by 24 per cent. Before the year was out, poverty levels had risen to 54 per cent in the villas miseria of the Gran Buenos Aires conurbation, and conditions worsened still further in already depressed provinces such as Tucumán, where the poverty rate was 71 per cent.footnote2 This was a devastating collapse for what had formerly been one of South America’s most prosperous countries. The entire political class had been discredited to such an extent that the dominant refrain of the mass mobilizations of 2002 became ¡que se vayan todos!—‘out with the lot of them!’ Argentina turned into a laboratory for new forms of collective action, including piquetero organizations mobilizing the unemployed, neighbourhood asambleas and worker-led takeovers of bankrupt factories; there was also a proliferation of the most varied cultural groups.

However, by early 2003 the momentum had drained from many of these initiatives, and hopes for a reordering of political life ‘from below’ gave way to demands for a return to order. Kirchner’s electoral campaign sought to capture this message with slogans such as ‘For a Serious Country, for a Normal Country’. Governor of the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz since 1991, Kirchner had in the 1970s been a member of Juventud Peronista, a left-Peronist youth movement set up to oppose the dictatorships between the 60s and 70s. Previously little known on the national scene, he came to prominence in the midst of a serious institutional crisis which had led to the collapse of much of the Argentine party system; a handful of left minority groupings and a drastically divided Peronist party were virtually the sole survivors. Kirchner was one of three Peronist candidates for the presidency in April 2003, and thanks to the divisions within the Partido Justicialista and the weakness of the opposition, he finished second in the first round of voting, with 22 per cent. Two points ahead of him was Menem who, tainted by association with the convertibility policies, privatizations and corruption of the 1990s, was so clearly going to lose in the second round that he withdrew—handing the presidency to Kirchner by default.