A queer calculation

The Economist Online

SHORTLY after 4 a.m. on the frigid morning of July 15th, Argentina became the first country in Latin America to permit gay marriages nationwide, and to allow homosexual couples to adopt children. After over 14 hours of debate and fierce legislative arm-twisting, the Senate voted 33 to 27 to approve the bill. The measure both cements Argentina’s reputation as a relatively liberal outlier in a socially conservative region, and delivers a big short-term political victory to the president, Cristina Fernández, and her husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner. Whether it will help or harm their effort to remain in power past 2011, however, remains very much in question.

The Kirchners’ transformation into crusading gay-rights activists is fairly recent. Lawmakers repeatedly put forth the subject last year, but it received little presidential support. The politics of the issue changed once the ruling couple’s Front for Victory (FPV) party lost its congressional majorities. The Kirchners were looking for a controversial bill they could force through the legislature to prove the government could still get its way, and they settled on gay marriage as the best candidate. The topic would unite their leftist base, and enable them to demonise opponents of the measure—particularly the Catholic church, with which they have long had tense dealings—as retrograde bigots. Although several opposition senators pushed for a civil-union law instead, which would not include adoption rights, the Kirchners characteristically made it clear the battle would be all-or-nothing.

The tactic succeeded in polarising the country and giving them the edge. Jorge Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, played into their hands by calling the proposal “a destructive pretension against the plan of God.” That enabled Ms Fernández, on a trip to China, to fire back that “it is very worrisome to listen to expressions like ‘war of God’ or ‘projects of the devil’ and things that recall the times of the Inquisition.” Similar exchanges played out among demonstrators at the square in front of Congress. Tens of thousands of faithful answered Catholic leaders’ call for protests against the measure by marching there on Tuesday. But when one small religious group tried to return the next day, after gay-rights advocates had installed themselves on the plaza, they were quickly shouted down. “Rubbish church, you are the dictatorship,” the masses chanted in rhyming Spanish.

The Kirchners eked out their legislative victory by courting senators individually: Ms Fernández even brought two allied lawmakers who had expressed objections to the bill on an official trip to China. But such tactics cannot be applied to the population at large. The first couple’s victory may turn out to have been Pyrrhic. It will endear them to voters in the cosmopolitan city of Buenos Aires. But the capital is already so hostile to the Kirchners that they are unlikely to make meaningful inroads there. Meanwhile, the church remains influential in the provinces, which have tended to back the president and her husband, and are over-represented in the Senate in comparison to their population. The government may have let its desire for a quick and resounding triumph trump its long-term interests.