Las esposas, en el centro de la batalla de poder en Argentina

Wives at centre of Peronist power struggle


By Adam Thomson

Published: July 7 2005 03:00 | Last updated: July 7 2005 03:00


Just over two years ago Eduardo Duhalde sat him-self down on a sumptuous sofa and announced that he would walk away from politics.


"My return would be terrible for Argentina," the outgoing president told the FT in his last interview as head of state. The old guard that he represented had to "give way to a new generation with new ideas".


Today Mr Duhalde has re-entered the fray by engaging Néstor Kirchner, the country's leftwing president, in a dogged struggle for power that is likely to shape Argentine politics for the foreseeable future.


The battle is made all the more personal by the involvement of both men's wives, who seem certain to compete for Senate seats. As crucial legislative elections in October draw nearer, the Duhalde and Kirchner camps have been trying to work out how best to carve up control and influence in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina's most important province.


Much is at stake. For Mr Duhalde, the de facto head of the country's ruling Peronist party, the struggle is about maintaining his grip on his traditional political stronghold, the most populous and richest of Argentina's 24 provinces. It is also about limiting the power of Felipe Solá, the province's governor and his sworn political enemy.


Mr Kirchner, another Peronist, is intent on furthering his ambitions for probable re-election in 2007. In particular, he is determined to set up his own political structure in the province to rival that of Mr Duhalde. The October elections, he said recently, would be nothing short of "a plebiscite on my administration".


Until a few days ago, most political analysts thought the two men would reach a compromise made possible by Argentina's arcane election system.


Part of the agreement would consist of Mr Duhalde persuading Hilda "Chiche" Duhalde, his wife, to drop her ambition to become senator of Buenos Aires province. That would leave the path clear for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the president's wife and a powerful senator, to run for the post on the Peronist ticket.


In return, Mr Kirchner would allow Mr Duhalde to pick many of the names on Ms Fernández's ballot sheet - candidates running for seats in the national lower house, as well as the provincial legislature. Victory for Ms Fernández would automatically ensure those names rose to positions of power.


That neat solution now appears a remote possibility - it is understood Mr Duhalde demanded more posts than Mr Kirchner was willing to concede. As a result, a rift in the ruling Peronist party has opened up and seems to be deepening by the day.


If no last-minute agreement can be reached, Ms Fernández, who is expected to launch her candidacy for senator of Buenos Aires province today, will run outside the Peronist party structure.


Ms Duhalde, meanwhile, who was also supposed to announce her candidacy for senator this week, will almost certainly launch her own campaign as the official Peronist candidate in the coming days.


Political analysts say the formal split will probably mean at least two things. First, Mr Kirchner's administration will have to throw more money at the election because local powerbrokers in Buenos Aires will require more persuading to run outside their own Peronist party.


Second, a ruptured Peronist party is likely to clean up in the elections. Thanks to a constitutional reform in 1994, the victorious party wins two of the three seats each province is allocated in the national Senate while the second-place party wins the third seat.


But if Ms Fernández runs outside the party, it is almost certain that she will share the three seats with Ms Duhalde, shutting out the other parties.


As Sergio Berensztein, a professor of politics at the Di Tella university in Buenos Aires, puts it: "Solá says they [he and Kirchner] have created a separate party. But that argument is questionable because they are clearly all backed by Peronism."


That is bad news for Argentina's opposition. This week Ricardo López Murphy, leader of the Recrear centre-right party, threatened the Buenos Aires Peronist wing with legal action if the two women launched their candidacies separately.


To do so, he said, "would be to violate the constitution because the same party would be the majority and the minority at the same time".


Until he does, the only certainty appears to be an increasing dominance of the Peronist party - albeit a much more bitter and fractious one.