Rodrigo Orihuela
Rodrigo Orihuela

Could my wife replace me as president, please?

Two leading international magazines, the New Yorker and the Economist, ran articles in September on political dynasties. Unsurprisingly, both centred on the Bushes and Clintons who will have jointly governed the world’s most powerful country uninterrupted for 24 years if Hillary Clinton is elected US president next year and subsequently completes her term.

The interesting New Yorker article explains how dynasties have always existed in the US — the George Bushes were not the first father-son presidents. The honour belongs to John Adams and his “little” John Quincy; Al Gore’s dad, Al Snr, served in the Senate long before his Nobel Prize-winning son became vice-president; and there is always the case of the Kennedys (a dynasty that runs all the way down to Arnold Schwarzenegger).

The shorter Economist piece was published in the magazine’s US politics blog, Democracy in America, and the modern-day US dynastic trend is treated as a problem.

Americans have a peculiar metaphor they use to underscore certain flaws in their political institutions: they compare themselves to some Latin-American country or other. In the US, the region south of the Rio Grande is vastly considered a political basket case, a lawless area where long-bearded cigar-smoking dictators, union-leaders-turned-presidents and torturing generals rule.

One such comparison pops up in the Economist blog post, where a journalist is quoted asking a Latin-American diplomat what would happen if Cristina Fernández were elected president of Argentina. “That is not only a Latin-American problem,” the diplomat is reported to have answered, in a punch clearly aimed at Hillary Clinton.

A few days later, on September 28, Fernández was elected president. She will be sworn into office on Monday December 10. Until recently, she was a senator and the wife of the incumbent Argentine president, Néstor Kirchner.

When Cristina Fernández, who is a politician in her own right and not simply a presidential “desperate wife”, receives the presidential baton from her husband, the Kirchners will have set a record in global democracy: never before have voters elected spouses to serve consecutive terms as heads of state.

The closest case was probably Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the first woman elected head of state in the world when she became prime minister of Sri Lanka in 1960. Her husband, the former prime minister Solomon Bandaranaike, had been murdered the previous year. Two other prime ministers served in the year between the two Bandaranaike terms.

Many other women have made it to the top political job in their countries’ on the back of their dead fathers’ or husbands’ fame: Indira Gandhi, daughter of the former Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, is the most famous. However, the most successful and renowned women to serve as prime ministers or presidents — Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Angela Merkel and Helen Clark, to name a few — have mostly made it into office on their own merits.

Cristina Fernández’s election has drawn much attention from international political observers. This has a lot to do with her efforts to travel around the world this year to visit as many foreign heads of state and businessmen as possible. (As the Financial Times put it: “She has devoted so much time to foreign travel during her election campaign that it almost look as though she is running for a job in the United Nations.”)

Much as it may bother Fernández, foreigners are interested in her mostly because she is the wife of a very popular Peronist (Wikipedia entry on this bizarre party) president, not because they consider her a potentially great states-person (which she may or may not turn out to be). The Peronist spouse angle catches the eye because it is reminiscent of that story Andrew Lloyd-Webber made into a famous opera and in which Madonna later starred on the big screen. You know, the one with the Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina soundtrack.

Together with the former football star Diego Maradona, Evita Perón is the biggest Argentine icon abroad of all time, as far as personalities go. By the time she died aged 33 in 1952, the former actress Evita had amazed and seduced the international media — in the late 1940s, for example, Time magazine dedicated several front pages, like this one, to her and her husband, three-time Argentinian president Juan Perón. From then on, any Argentinian woman with presidential aspirations was bound to be compared to Evita.

Cristina Fernández does not like the Evita comparison, just like she does not like being compared to Hillary Clinton. She wants to be known as Cristina Fernández, to have her own name, to be known for who she is. In fact, as her presidential bid gained momentum she stopped using her husband’s surname.

Another label that bothers her is the “wife of Néstor” one. Yet, not only is there nothing she can do about it, but it also creates an image of her outside her country. Many non-Argentinians find it hard to believe that a president’s spouse can take over the job. They naively ask if the law doesn’t forbid it. Apparently, it is illegal in some countries. Not in this one.

Forbidding such moves is the right thing to do. The election of a spouse (or a brother, son or any other relative) sends the wrong kind of message. It indicates that running a country is a family business, and family businesses tend to be closed to outsiders. Governments are not meant to be closed to all but a few; they are meant to be open and transparent. Unless you live in a hand-picking dictatorship, that is.

Can South Africans imagine Thabo Mbeki standing up sometime between now and 2010 and saying: “Zanele should replace me. Vote for Zanele”?. Thought not. It would probably be a scandal and many ANC members would not be supportive of it — either because they would morally oppose it or because they would want the job for themselves.

The biggest, and most surprising, support for Fernández in the internationally influential media came from Time at mid-year. According to the magazine, as president of one of Latin America’s most important countries, she may turn out to be the interlocutor the White House is desperately seeking in one of the most anti-American regions in the world. Time believes she is fit for the job because she speaks the leftist talk of Hugo Chávez, the anti-US President of Venezuela, but also understands the talk of Washington.

The magazine, however, failed to address a key issue: female heads of state elected on the back of their husband’s prestige have not gone down in history as great leaders. Why should this case be any different? Time had no interest in analysing such historic trends. Its article focused on the future president’s political skills, and there is no question she has many of those. Time‘s take may well have been the right one and Cristina Fernández may end up being a great leader. But, as the Economist said regarding Bill Clinton’s wife:

We wish Hillary good luck. We wish even more that she had a different surname and history.

The same goes for Cristina in Argentina, and for any other country where couples wish to play presidential musical chairs.