Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is facing down angry farmers as a two-week-old farm protest against new taxes on agricultural exports gains momentum.
Despite the fact that the agricultural sector is often viewed in Argentina as a privileged landed elite -- and thus a ready target for populist government policy -- anti-government feeling has now spilled over into widespread urban protests, with demonstrators banging pots and pans in scenes reminiscent of the protests that brought down President Fernando de la Rua in 2001. Fernandez de Kirchner has refused to negotiate with striking rural producers over the sharp increase in export taxes that provoked the unrest, accusing them of 'extortion'.
The agricultural sector has promised to maintain the strike indefinitely -- which, with food shortages already being felt in urban areas, may further increase discontent -- while new urban protests are also planned.
Even before the recent events, Fernandez de Kirchner's positive image had fallen from 54% in February to 47% in March, according to a recent opinion poll -- a low level after only three months of government. Much of that fall was attributed to inflationary expectations, with a majority anticipating inflation of 27% over the next year. Public opinion is also inflamed over rising tax pressure -- the main cause of the agricultural protests -- and over the often politically motivated ends to which public spending is dedicated.
Although in practice the current conflicts are likely to die down, they may represent a serious blow to the government's credibility and stability. In particular, as was the case in 2001, the lack of an institutional opposition alternative appears likely to generate a rise in politically ineffectual but potentially destabilising anti-government protests capable of undermining governability.
Perhaps more important, the involvement of trade union and other pro-government protest forces to counter the demonstrations runs a serious risk of violent clashes not able to be controlled by the state. Demonstrator deaths led to the premature demise of the governments of both De la Rua and his successor, Eduardo Duhalde, and any similar tragedy, even without leading to the fall of the government, could put political stability at serious risk.