He arrived on Argentinas political stage almost by chance. Néstor Kirchner,the obscure governor of a far-flung Patagonian province,was elected to the presidency in 2003 when few others wanted the top job in a country whose economy had collapsed amid default and devaluation. His departure was equally abrupt,cut down by a heart attack when aged only 60 and seemingly still at the apogee of power. His passing will almost certainly accelerate change in his own country,and gives a sudden twist to the political kaleidoscope in Latin America.
In his time in the spotlight Mr Kirchner became Argentinas dominant player. He claimed much credit for his countrys vigorous recovery,though in truth he inherited the sound fiscal policy and floating exchange rate that,along with rising commodity prices,were responsible. History has vindicated his bruising treatment of holders of the defaulted bonds; something similar has since been visited by the United States administration on creditors of the American car companies and now,perhaps,on mortgage lenders. He warmed the hearts of Argentines with the comforting notion that it was the evil IMF,rather than their own mistakes,which was responsible for a once-rich countrys penury. In 2007 they elected his wife,Cristina Fernández (pictured,with him,earlier this year) in his stead. But Mr Kirchner remained the power behind the throne. Although less popular than in the past,he might well have won a presidential election due next October by exploiting the oppositions divisions.
He often used his power for shoddy ends. Senior officials doctored economic statistics to mask an inflation rate of over 20 per cent,seized pension and central-bank funds and bullied private companies,especially foreign-owned utilities. When the media turned against him,he harassed them,as he did political opponents. While Brazil,Chile and Uruguay embraced left-of-centre governments that combined progressive social policies with the rule of law,the Kirchners Argentina lapsed into rule by populist whim.
Populist regimes depend on individuals on the human factor not institutions. So his death is not just a personal tragedy for Ms Fernández,but also a huge political setback. She is an experienced politician in her own right,and not her husbands puppet,as some opponents claim. But they were a power couple; he was the political operator,she (on a good day) the better communicator. Even if Ms Fernández runs next year,kirchnerismo as a political project almost certainly died this week.
That ought to be good news for Argentina,provided its politicians act responsibly. A power struggle will now break out within Peronism,the countrys dominant political movement which Mr Kirchner had commandeered. Amid that,it is important that Ms Fernández should finish her term something that not all her recent predecessors have managed. Whoever wins the next election has the chance to harvest Argentinas considerable economic strengths while uprooting the distortions that have built up since 2003.
The decline of the populist left
Strangely for a man who seemed ill at ease outside Patagonia,let alone Argentina,Mr Kirchners demise will also be felt across Latin America. He sought and secured the post of inaugural secretary-general of Unasur,a pan-South American group inspired by Brazil.
His death is another in a string of setbacks for Venezuelas Hugo Chávez and his dwindling hopes of broadening his anti-American block in the region. Although more moderate than Mr Chávez,Mr Kirchner was the Venezuelan leaders most influential regional friend outside Cuba. When Mr Chávez cut off imports from Colombia in a fit of pique,it was to Argentina he turned for substitutes.
The left continues to thrive in some Latin American countries. But its populist strain is struggling. Mr Kirchners passing is
an unexpected milestone in
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2010