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Néstor Kirchner, Ex-Leader of Argentina, Is Dead at 60 -

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Argentine Ex-Leader Dies; Political Impact Is Murky

Dario Lopez-Mills/Associated Press

Néstor Kirchner with supporters in 2003, just before assuming Argentina’s presidency.

Published: October 27, 2010

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Néstor Kirchner, the former president of Argentina who led his country out of a crippling economic crisis before being succeeded by his wife, died unexpectedly early Wednesday, apparently of a heart attack, opening a period of intense political uncertainty in the nation.

Enrique Marcarian/Reuters

Néstor Kirchner with his wife, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in Buenos Aires in October.

After complaining of flu symptoms Tuesday night, Mr. Kirchner, 60, lost consciousness early Wednesday and was rushed to a hospital in El Calafate, a town in the southern Argentine province of Santa Cruz. Doctors there pronounced him dead at 9:15 a.m. local time, according to an official in Mr. Kirchner’s inner circle.

Luis Buonomo, the presidential doctor, said Mr. Kirchner died from sudden cardiac arrest, according to reports in Argentine newspapers. He had undergone two procedures in the past year to clear arterial blockages, the most recent in September.

Mr. Kirchner’s death, coming on a national holiday to conduct the census, throws next year’s elections and the presidency of his wife and political partner, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, into a sudden state of flux. Not only did Mr. Kirchner and his popularity as president help her be elected, but he also exercised substantial influence behind the scenes of her government, playing a hands-on role in the running of the economy and recently serving as the head of their Peronist party.

Together they formed one of the world’s most powerful political couples, dubbed the “penguins” for Mr. Kirchner’s close association with his Patagonian home province, Santa Cruz. As president, Mrs. Kirchner was more often the public face of their partnership, while he was the master political operator, pulling the levers of the Peronist machinery. Mr. Kirchner held the disparate governing coalition intact by inspiring loyalty in lower-level politicians and unions with subsidies and patronage, and by growing the economy at a swift pace, even at the cost of inflation.

Many Argentines were also betting that he, not his wife, would run for president next year, part of what analysts frequently called the couple’s leap-frog strategy to create a lasting dynasty by passing the presidency between them for multiple terms.

His death could either bolster or hurt Mrs. Kirchner’s political prospects, analysts said. Her government was extremely unpopular in her first two years, but it has been rising in popularity in recent months amid an economy the Argentine Central Bank expects to grow by 9.5 percent this year. Recent approval ratings have hovered above 45 percent, up from the mid-30s last year.

“The reaction at first will be of grief and condolence, but then the vultures will move in,” said Federico Thomsen, a political consultant in Buenos Aires. “Initially there will be sympathy for her, but that won’t last too long. She will need to captain the ship.”

Argentina has not responded well when presidents or influential spouses have passed away prematurely. After Eva Perón died in 1952, a military coup three years later ousted her husband, Gen. Juan Perón. Two years after Perón died in 1974, a military junta overthrew the government of his third wife, Isabel.

The country is far more stable these days. Mrs. Kirchner “is smart, and there is a chance that she will play this politically to hold on to power, with the message of keeping the penguins in power,” said Federico Mac Dougall, a political analyst at the University of Belgrano in Buenos Aires.

But, analysts said, it is more likely that a group of loyal and dissident Peronists will now scramble for power and influence without Mr. Kirchner’s strong hand to rein them in.

Mr. Kirchner was a fairly obscure local politician from Santa Cruz, where he was governor, before being elected in 2003. He received only 22.2 percent of the vote in the first round.

Once in power he took strong control of the government, standing up to police and military officials, and refusing to bend to — or often pay — debtors, creditors and the International Monetary Fund. He also pressed Supreme Court justices to resign and overturned amnesty laws for military officers who had been accused of assassinations and torture during the military dictatorship.

“In a very unstable situation he took absolute control,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.

Under Mr. Kirchner, the country rode a global commodities boom that increased exports of its agricultural products, stimulated domestic spending and helped get the country out of its economic crisis.

But once the economy stabilized, Mr. Kirchner continued his contentious style, issuing decrees and concentrating power in the executive. Some began to accuse him of authoritarianism.

“He had a ruthless view of politics,” said Daniel Kerner, a Buenos Aires-based analyst with Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy. “If you are not the toughest, people will take advantage of you; that’s how he saw politics.”

Mrs. Kirchner won the presidential election in 2007, promising a more consensual approach and more respect for the rule of law. But that promise was not kept, Mr. Jones argued. With the former president at her side, she nationalized the country’s largest airline, wrested control of billions of dollars in private pension funds and waged a battle with farmers protesting big tax increases that paralyzed agricultural exports for months.

Charles Newbery contributed reporting from Buenos Aires.

A version of this article appeared in print on October 28, 2010, on page A12 of the New York edition.

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