BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Thousands of people flooded the streets of Argentina's capital Thursday night in one of the country's biggest anti-government protests in more than a decade.
Angered by rising inflation, violent crime and high-profile corruption, and afraid President Cristina Fernandez will try to hold onto power indefinitely by ending constitutional term limits, the protesters marched on the iconic obelisk in Buenos Aires chanting: "We're not afraid."
Demonstrators reached the presidential residence in scorching summer heat banging on pots, whistling and holding banners that read: "Respect, transparency, freedom."
The demonstrations were also held in plazas nationwide and in Argentine embassies and consulates around the world.
The protests hold deep symbolism for Argentines, who recall all too well the country's economic debacle of a decade ago. The "throw them all out" chants of that era's pot-banging marches forced presidents from office and left Argentina practically ungovernable until Fernandez's late husband, Nestor Kirchner, assumed the presidency in 2003.
The current president's supporters sought to ignore two of the protests this year, but with the latest effort promising to turn out huge numbers, her loyalists have come out in force. They dismiss the protesters as part of a wealthy elite, or beholden to discredited opposition parties, and misled by news coverage from media companies representing the country's most powerful economic interests.
"The people don't feel represented by anyone. It's a complaint everyone has. The people are begging for the opposition to rise up, and for the government to listen," said Mariana Torres, an accountant and mother of three who is among the leading organizers of the protests.
Fernandez has suggested that too much of Argentina's political rhetoric masks darker motivations that few want to openly express.
"No more lying," she said during a speech Wednesday. "It's all that I ask of all the Argentines, that we speak the truth."
Polls suggest neither side has a firm grip on people's sympathies.
Fernandez was re-elected by a landslide of 54 percent over a divided opposition just a year ago but saw her approval rating fall to 31 percent in a nationwide survey in September by the firm Management & Fit. The survey of 2,259 people, which had an error margin of about 2 percentage points, also said 65 percent of respondents disapproved of her opponents' performance.
Crime is the biggest concern for many marchers.
Argentine newspapers and television programs provide a daily diet of stories about increasingly bold home invasion robberies, in which armed bands tie up families until victims hand over the cash that many Argentines keep in their homes. Many people stopped putting money in banks after the government froze savings accounts and devalued the currency in 2002. Adding to frustrations, the vast majority of the crimes are never solved, while the death toll is rising.
Inflation also upsets many, as the government's much-criticized index puts inflation at about 10 percent annually, or as little as a third of the estimates of private economists. As a result, real estate transactions have slowed to a standstill, given the difficulty of estimating the future value of contracts. And unions that won 25 percent pay hikes only a few months ago are threatening to strike again unless the government comes up with more.
Many Argentines are worried mostly about their pocketbooks, angry that government decrees designed to maintain the central bank's dollar reserves and combat tax evasion have made it all but impossible to legally trade their inflationary pesos for safer currencies.
"If you go to the march you won't find only middle-class people," Torres said ahead of the demonstration. "You'll see everything from a professional to a low-wage worker to retirees on minimal pensions."
Sen. Anibal Fernandez, who was the president's Cabinet chief and now leads the governing party's legislators, has called the idea of general discontent "an invention of one faction of the ultra-right." He accused organizers of being funded by wealthy landowners and supporters of the 1976-1983 dictatorship.
Pro-government voices say what's really at stake is the model of social inclusion that the Kirchners pursued, such as providing cash payments to the poor and unemployed, and directing billions of dollars from the nationalized pension fund to social welfare projects.
The model puts Argentina's development needs ahead of international commitments, and has made sure that the country's state-controlled oil company and airline respond first to the needs of its citizens, government supporters say.
President Fernandez has called for an honest debate about her policies rather than protests.
"The only thing I ask of each one of the Argentines, and mostly of political class, is that each one says what they really think and want for this country, with sincerity, and that no one will be offended," she said.
But the president also issued a warning to those gathering Thursday night: "Don't anyone think that I'm going to go against my own politics, those that I've defended since I was 15 years old. These are the politics I believe in and this is the country I believe in."
Argentina's opposition parties remain weak and balkanized and face a credibility crisis, having lost control of Congress and nearly every other institution capable of restraining the government. Instead, much of the opposition has coalesced around social media sites created by Torres and attorney Marcelo Moran, who insist they aren't affiliated with any political organization. The eight sites and accounts they manage claim more than 200,000 followers.
Torres dismissed most opposition politicians as having lost touch with Argentines, and said she expected some of them to try to piggyback on the marches.
The march was organized on social networks and was also countered by supporters of the government on the web.
Writer Ivy Cangaro and business consultant Juan Carlos Romero launched a counter-campaign, "8-N I won't go," which has more than 27,000 followers. They, too, say they don't belong to any particular political platform, but support Fernandez.
Cangaro said the march was misguided. "The premises are false and have been imposed by the media through fear. The people assume it's real and so feel the need to go out and protest against it, but it has nothing to do with what's real and tangible."