Argentine leader defies pessimism

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CORDOBA, Argentina — As a candidate, Nestor Kirchner campaigned on a promise to combat the corrupt political elite and vested interests that grew rich in recent years as the nation plummeted into economic collapse.

Few expected Mr. Kirchner to keep his promise: Saying one thing and doing another is a well-worn tradition in Argentine politics.

But President Kirchner has defied forecasts that he would be beholden to his long-dominant Peronist party and raised guarded hopes from a skeptical public.

In his first six weeks in office, he proposed a flurry of measures to keep his campaign promises, spurning the U.S.-promoted economic policies that held sway during the 1989-1999 presidency of Carlos Menem.

“So far, Kirchner has represented the flip side of Menem and the 1990s,” said Juan Manuel Abal Medina, a political analyst. “If the ‘90s was the market, Kirchner is market regulation. If the ‘90s was corruption and decadence, Kirchner is austerity and good administration.”

His most praised move has been the ouster last month of Chief Justice Julio Nazareno, widely seen as a corrupt crony of Mr. Menem. One of five judges appointed by Mr. Menem and known as his “automatic majority,” Mr. Nazareno resigned June 27 rather than face an impeachment trial called for by Mr. Kirchner.

On July 3, legislators began impeachment proceedings against a second member of the “automatic majority,” Eduardo Moline O’Connor, at Mr. Kirchner’s urging. Mr. Moline O’Connor resigned from the court last week.

President Kirchner has also forced the retirement of half the country’s generals and admirals, fired top federal police officers, and initiated an overhaul of the notoriously corrupt federal pension and social security agency.

The purges have been well received by Argentines, who in recent years came to view their leaders and institutions with disdain. Public approval for Mr. Kirchner topped 80 percent in recent polls.

Contributing to his popular support has been an almost daily barrage of presidential declarations and actions, leading some Argentines to say Mr. Kirchner did more in his first week in office than former President Fernando de la Rua, driven from office by street protests in December 2001, did in two years.

“I didn’t expect things would move so fast,” said Silvia Varas, 42, a medical-clinic employee who spoiled her ballot in the April first-round election. “Taking out the head of the Supreme Court is something nobody had dared to do. It’s clear the guy wants to make changes,” she said.

As significant as the assault on the court, say analysts, was the decree Mr. Kirchner signed this month requiring the president to disclose the names and backgrounds of prospective candidates for the top judicial post, including their estates and tax records, and allowing for the input of citizens, human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations in their selection.

The decree helped muffle criticism that Mr. Kirchner had ulterior motives for the institutional shake-ups. As governor for 11 years of Santa Cruz province in Patagonia, Mr. Kirchner was accused of ruling with an autocratic hand and of packing the provincial supreme court and other public offices with political allies.

“The track record of Santa Cruz’s institutions is not good,” said Gustavo Gutierrez, who was vice presidential candidate on the center-left ARI party ticket.

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