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Source: The Economist

NEWS that the president had suddenly gone to hospital would prompt questions in any country. How serious is the ailment, really? How long will the convalescence take? And, most important, what if the leader’s health deteriorates? Those worries are especially intense in Argentina, where in her six years as president Cristina Fernández has established a highly personalised, and often tricksy, style of rule—and where, on October 8th, she underwent emergency surgery to drain a build-up of blood near her brain.

The story began on October 5th, when Ms Fernández checked into hospital complaining of an irregular heartbeat and headaches. Tests revealed the bleeding, apparently caused by an earlier wound. Since Ms Fernández had not disclosed any previous accident, Argentines were surprised when Alfredo Scoccimarro, her press secretary, nonchalantly mentioned that she had also gone to hospital in August. Apparently the president fell and hit her head the day after her Front for Victory party (FPV) was trounced in nationwide primary elections (a preliminary vote before the impending mid-term congressional elections).

On October 7th Ms Fernández was rushed back to hospital. Her doctors, who had earlier advised rest, decided to operate. They did so on October 8th; the president is now said to be recovering. But since she instructed her team not to disclose all the findings of her medical tests, the exact state of her health is uncertain. And the questions about her future remain acute.

To begin with, how long Ms Fernández will be incapacitated is unknown. At a minimum, she is likely to miss the mid-term elections on October 27th. Before her operation she had been campaigning with her usual zeal, including setting up a photo-op with Pope Francis for one of her candidates. But the results of August’s primaries and recent polls suggest the FPV will do worse than ever before in its ten-year existence as a party—discredited as it is by high inflation and other economic woes.

Day of the sock-lickers

How this week’s events will affect the outcome is also unclear. In the past Ms Fernández has used her vulnerability to political advantage. After the death of her husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner, in 2010, her approval ratings jumped. The following year she translated this outpouring of sympathy into an inflow of votes, securing an unprecedented 54% of the ballot in her re-election.

She is unlikely to be so lucky this time. According to a survey by Polldata, a research firm, only 15% of respondents thought the president’s fragile health would translate into more votes for her party. Juan Cruz Díaz of Cefeidas, a political-risk consultancy, says the “sympathy effect” is likely to be strong only among people who already support her.

Two other factors are working against her. First, this is only the latest in a string of health scares for the president. In January 2012 she was out of action for several weeks after being mistakenly diagnosed with thyroid cancer. This week’s events will fuel suspicions that she is not physically fit to govern.

The second negative is the centralised system of government that Ms Fernández has created. She has stuffed her cabinet with obsequious puppets—or “sock-lickers,” as Argentines call them—thus building an administration that cannot exist without her. Faced with the possibility that it might have to, tension in Argentina is high. And the reputation of the man who will act as president while she convalesces may well prove especially damaging to Ms Fernández and the FPV.

Amado Boudou, her shaggy-haired vice-president, helped her to win re-election in 2011 by strumming his guitar around the country. But now he has the worst reputation of any member of the government. Last year he faced allegations of illegal enrichment and influence peddling. Prosecutors failed to provide convincing evidence to substantiate them—and Mr Boudou denies all wrongdoing—but Argentines will be reminded of the imbroglio by his temporary role. Instead of allaying the anxiety sparked by his boss’s health, Mr Boudou is likely to exacerbate it.

All this could have long-lasting consequences. Before her operation, rumours swirled that, if she secured the requisite two-thirds majority in Congress, Ms Fernández would try to change the constitution to allow herself to run for a third term as president in 2015. That idea now looks fanciful. Instead Ms Fernández’s power in the last two years of her mandate may prove as frail as her health.

From the print edition: The Americas

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