Cristina's comeback: Fernández de Kirchner set for dramatic return as Argentina's No 2
Polls say Fernández de Kirchner and presidential candidate Alberto Fernández (no relation), could win by as much as 19 percentage points.
Polls say Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and presidential candidate Alberto Fernández (no relation), could win by as much as 19 percentage points. Photograph: Natacha Pisarenko/AP
When she left office in 2015, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was vilified by her opponents as a corrupt populist who had bankrupted Argentina during her two-term presidency.
She was painted as a sore loser, who even refused to participate in the ceremony in which tradition demanded she present her successor Mauricio Macri with the presidential baton and sash.
“I was Cristina, the arrogant ‘bitch’, the authoritarian populist,” wrote the former president – commonly referred to as Cristina Kirchner in Argentina – in a memoir earlier this year.
Meanwhile, she was entangled in a string of court cases involving accusations of bribery, money laundering, corruption and allegations that she had helped cover up Iran’s involvement in a terrorist bombing that prosecutor was investigating.
But in what could be one of the most incredible comebacks in Argentina’s political history, Fernández de Kirchner seems to be on the brink of returning to office as vice-president – and potentially the real power behind the throne.
Polls before Sunday’s election predict that the former president and her running mate, Alberto Fernández (no relation), could win by as much as 19 percentage points.
They are facing incumbent Macri, who took power in 2015 pledging “zero poverty” and denouncing the allegedly rampant corruption during the 12-year rule of Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband and presidential predecessor, Néstor Kirchner.
But so dismal was Macri’s economic mismanagement that voters appear willing to turn a blind eye to Fernández de Kirchner’s many court appearances, the arrest of her former cabinet members, and even the discovery of $4.6m in cash in a safety deposit box belonging to her 29-year-old daughter. (No verdict has been reached in any the court cases she is involved in, and as a sitting senator, Fernández de Kirchner remains immune to prosecution.)
Under Macri, the peso has plunged, , inflation rocketed to 56% per year, and the percentage of the population living below the breadline has risen from 29% to 35%.
A recent survey showed that 56.9% of voters believe the economy would deteriorate even further should Macri continue in office, while 59.5% expect it could improve under Fernández. The survey, by the CEOP pollster, predicts Fernández will beat Macri by 50.5% to 31.2% this Sunday.
Macri also seems to have underestimated Fernández de Kirchner’s deep hold on the political imagination of many Argentinians. She dominates social media and seems to represent a modern-day version of Eva Perón, Argentina’s unofficial patron saint of the poor, the charismatic wife of President Juan Perón.
Like Evita, Fernández de Kirchner has earned first-name recognition in Argentina; she also championed the poor with social aid programs while remaining a self-confessed slave to fashion.
The former president is a talented public speaker who made weekly national addresses in office. Macri, meanwhile, is an often graceless speaker, whose wooden delivery did not help when announcing unpopular government measures such as massive tariff hikes.
He has also earned the dislike of many female voters for his reflexive sexism, and his support for Argentina’s anti-abortion movement, which prevented the passage of a law legalising abortion during his presidency.
“Cristina represents an empowered woman,” said Samanta Casareto, professor of history at Buenos Aires University. “For a whole generation she signifies the vindication of social rights that had been deliberately set aside.”
In a radio interview last week, Macri said Fernández de Kirchner’s economic policies were like “handing over the administration of the house to your wife, and your wife, instead of paying the bills, uses the credit card, and uses it and uses it, until one day they come to mortgage your house”.
Such comment encapsulate the mindset of a “machirulo” – a recent coinage by Argentina’s feminists for a sexist bigot who disrespects women.
After the disastrous radio interview, Fernández de Kirchner responded rapidly with a tweet: “See?!! I told you he was a machirulo.”
Fernández de Kirchner also displayed superior political acumen when she chose not to run for president, instead handing the nomination to the moderate Fernández, a mild-mannered, moderate Peronist who served as cabinet chief in Néstor Kirchner’s administration.
The surprise move effectively disarmed Macri’s strategy to portray the election as a choice between a safe pair of hands (himself) and a power-hungry, polarizing woman who was relishing the prospect of a return to the highest office in the land.
Although Fernández de Kirchner is likely to call the shots, analysts say that the promise that her fiery spirit will be tempered by Fernández’s even keel seems to have appealed to middle-class voters disenchanted with Macri.
Fernández has assured voters he would steer an even course in economics, seeking a friendly agreement with the IMF and avoiding the return of the kind of currency controls imposed during Fernández de Kirchner’s government.
His promise is meant to assuage the doubts of middle-class voters in a country where banks offer dollar accounts to protect savings from Argentina’s perennial inflation.
Brazil’s rightwing president, Jair Bolsonaro, has described Fernández de Kirchner, and her running mate as “leftwing bandits” and warned that her likely return to office means “Argentina is starting to head in the direction of Venezuela.”
But the election comes at a time of political turmoil across Latin America – much of it fueled by popular rage at austerity measures and income inequality.
Ecuador saw two weeks of violence over the cancellation of fuel subsidies. Across Argentina’s northern border, the Bolivian Evo Morales’s controversial bid for a fourth term as president has prompted allegations of voter fraud, while to the west, Macri’s close ally, Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera, has been accused of violently suppressing protests over poverty and inequality.
In a radio interview on Wednesday, Fernández de Kirchner’s running mate accused Macri of downplaying the deaths and violence in Chile. “People reacted because it’s the most unequal country in Latin America. And inequality is like sitting on a bucket of petrol, if a spark falls, you blow up.”