Argentines polarised over the Kirchner decade

By Ignacio de los Reyes
BBC News, Buenos Aires

Image source, Reuters
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Divisions between those who love and loathe the president run deep

There are a few necessities at a typical Sunday meal in Argentina - a feast of barbecued meat, a bottle of red wine and a heated political debate.

But the third has become too hard to digest in many Argentine households.

On Saturday the government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is marking the 10th anniversary of her late husband, Nestor Kirchner, coming to power, and thus a decade of unbroken Kirchner rule.

But it comes amid growing polarisation.

"I have lost all faith in this government. I've decided to stop talking about politics at home to avoid fights with my own relatives," says Lucia, a psychologist from the northern province of Misiones, who does not wish to give her second name.

A self-declared "anti-Kirchnerista", she compares political tensions in the country to those between rival football fans.

"Now in the same family you can find those who hate the president and those who idolise her," she says.

Her sister Mercedes backs the Kirchner team.

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The Kirchners have dominated Argentine politics for a decade

"Many people have benefited from the government's social programs," says Mercedes, an International Relations student in Buenos Aires.

"Her opponents criticise the president not for her policies, but for the way she talks or the way she dresses. There is still a lot of hate and machismo among the Argentine opposition."

Family suppers at Lucia and Mercedes's parents' house in the capital are usually seasoned with political debate.

Is "Cristina "- as both allies and enemies usually refer to the president - an overly populist leader or a saviour for the working class? Has Argentina moved too far from the United States and too close to Venezuela?

The only thing the sisters seem to agree upon is that Argentina is now a divided nation - and that it wasn't like this 10 years ago.

On 25 May 2003 the relatively unknown governor of the remote southern province of Santa Cruz, Nestor Kirchner, became president after being elected by 22% of the voters.

He inherited an exhausted nation and a people disillusioned with politics after the record debt default in 2001, the collapse of the peso and the biggest financial crisis in Argentina's history.

But soon the economy recovered and a commodities price boom fuelled government spending in this resource-rich country.

Nestor Kirchner restored hope, especially among young and left-wing Argentines, when he promoted a vote in Congress to scrap amnesty laws, allowing fresh trials for those who led the under military rule in the 1970s and 1980s.

He then paved the way for his wife, Senator Cristina Fernandez, to succeed him. She was elected president in 2007 and continued many of her husband's policies.

She governed with close support from her husband, who was expected to run for re-election in 2011.

But after his sudden death in 2010, she was re-elected with 54% of the vote, the biggest victory margin ever for an Argentine president.

Middle class protests

President Fernandez is still a popular figure among low-income families and rural Argentines, who have benefited from the government's social policies such as child allowances, higher pensions for the elderly and labour rights for domestic workers.

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Middle class Argentines are angry over inflation and crime

She also brought worldwide attention to Argentina in 2010, when the country became the first in Latin America to legalise gay marriage.

But Ms Fernandez's honeymoon with the urban middle class seems to be over now.

The national growth rate dropped from 9% in 2008 to nearly 2.6% last year.

And inflation tops 26% according to private firms, although the government says the figure is much lower.

While the president boasts that the Kirchner era has transformed the country, many feel the new Argentina is not quite to their liking.

In recent months, thousands have marched against rising prices, government restrictions on the purchase of US dollars, and crime levels.

Meanwhile, Ms Fernandez and her supporters blame the media giant Clarin - the president's arch-enemy - and other critical media outlets for igniting the protests.

'Caught in the middle'

"Argentina is a frustrated nation," sociologist Heriberto Muraro said.

Image source, Reuters
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Ms Fernandez remains popular among low-income families

"After the crash of 2001, people were expecting a new era of dialogue, understanding and transparency in politics, but Cristina Fernandez failed to achieve that," he says.

"Our society is divided between those who hate the president, those who adore her and those who are caught in the middle, fed up of polarisation."

Sol, from Buenos Aires, who also does not want to give her full name, is among the latter.

"I think the president has done great things but made some mistakes too. And it is hard to find people admitting that. Nobody in the government or the opposition seems to acknowledge the others' success," she says.

"The situation has become too extreme, but at the end of the day politicians are just a reflection of how Argentines behave, confronting each other."

Disputes over Ms Fernandez's record will remain a staple at Argentine social gatherings until the next presidential election, in 2015, Heriberto Muraro warns.

But there are those who are resolving to keep politics away from the dinner table.

TV host Susana Gimenez - considered South America's Oprah Winfrey - recently made a shocking revelation about her new diet during her prime-time show.

She said she would give up on three popular products that made her look bad on TV: "Pasta, pizza… and politics."

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