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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 May, 2004, 15:41 GMT 16:41 UK
Argentine revival marks Kirchner first year

By Elliott Gotkine
BBC South America Correspondent in Buenos Aires

In an unbearably stuffy auditorium on the banks of the River Plate, thousands of flag-waving, drum-beating Argentines have gathered to listen to - and to cheer - their country's newest political star: President Nestor Carlos Kirchner.

Nestor Kirchner
Has Kirchner solved Argentina's economic crisis?
For them, it is a joy to finally have a leader who seems to care about the poor, in contrast to the 10 years of unabashed capitalism they experienced in the 1990s, which many blame for provoking Argentina's worst ever economic crisis.

It is 12 months since Nestor Kirchner - a former Patagonia provincial governor - came to power, after scraping just 22% of the vote.

He became president by default, after his main opponent - former leader, Carlos Menem - pulled out of the second round of voting because he knew he would be routed by Mr Kirchner.

But without a popular mandate, many Argentines feared he would be a weak president, with little power to do anything about his country's many serious problems.

"We were all wrong," said Guillermo Makin, a politics professor at Belgrano University in Buenos Aires, and now a big fan of President Kirchner.

"He's used opinion polls and his standing - still around 70%, which is pretty overwhelming - to cow Congressmen and to make sure that legislation is passed," Professor Makin said.

"He's promised and enacted a number of reforms with the military in terms of human rights and economic reforms ensuring people's pensions are paid, that the lower income sector got a larger share of the cake - and that is what has propelled consumption, and the boom over the past year."

Human rights

The president's critics say this boom - which has seen Argentina's economy expand almost 12% in the last year - has taken place despite Mr Kirchner's policies, rather than because of them.

Either way, Argentina's economic recovery has undoubtedly done wonders for the president's popularity, and allowed him to concentrate on other issues, such as human rights.

Mr Kirchner took the oath to be president one year ago and he did nothing to deal with the problem
Ricardo Lopez-Murphy, opposition
Since assuming power, Mr Kirchner has put enormous effort into overturning amnesties for military officers accused of human rights abuses during the country's last military dictatorship, during which up to 30,000 people are believed to have been killed.

Many more were tortured in clandestine centres like Buenos Aires's Navy School of Mechanics.

So when President Kirchner decided to mark the 28th anniversary of the coup by converting the navy school into a memorial museum, many Argentines supported him.

But the ceremony itself alienated many more who disagreed with his one-sided version of history, while prompting concern among others who felt the president was letting the human rights issue distract him from other matters.

"I think Kirchner's real mistake was to think that human rights were more important in the public opinion agenda than they were in reality," said political analyst, Rosendo Fraga.

"While Kirchner was thinking that the memorial museum was the most important issue, the most important issue for society was crime and insecurity."

Unconventional leader

The government realised this about a week later, but only after 130,000 people, waving placards bearing pictures of murder victims and holding candles aloft, gathered in front of Argentina's Congress, to demand safer streets and stiffer penalties for criminals.

Alarmed at having to chase the political agenda for the first time since it came to power, President Kirchner's government was forced to hastily cobble together a national security plan.

We were all wrong
Guillermo Makin, politics professor, university in Buenos Aires
A few weeks later he was at it again, this time with a national energy plan.

It followed months of warnings about the country's worst energy crisis in more than a decade, which looks set to put the brakes on Argentina's runaway economic growth.

"Mr Kirchner took the oath to be president one year ago and he did nothing to deal with the problem," said Ricardo Lopez-Murphy, a leader of Argentina's opposition.

Had he won the last presidential election, Mr Lopez-Murphy said he would have done things very differently.

"I would have gone by the book, which means having the right regulation, opening the economy, looking for confidence and reputation, and trying to enhance people's ability to improve their quality of life," Mr Lopez-Murphy said.

"We are trying to do something that nobody did before. And I am afraid this will not produce a good outcome."

But Nestor Kirchner is happy to be an unconventional president.

He argues that it was going by the book which prompted Argentina's devastating economic crisis and debt default in the first place.

So where does he go from here? No-one can answer that for sure, though the fear for many Argentines is that President Kirchner does not seem to know the answer to that question either.

Argentines see glimmer of hope
31 Oct 03 |  Americas
Country profile: Argentina
21 Feb 04 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Argentina
26 May 03 |  Country profiles

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