BUENOS AIRES — For the first time in a dozen years, the Kirchner family is set to leave the Casa Rosada — the Argentine version of the White House — but President Cristina Fernandez’s grip on power will likely extend far beyond the vote in two weeks to determine her successor.
Amid accusations of large-scale corruption and opposition charges of widespread electoral fraud, Ms. Fernandez is determined to do whatever is necessary to protect her legacy and, so critics say, the clout she needs to shield herself from prosecution. Anything but a lame duck, the 62-year-old leftist president has refused to cede center stage to Buenos Aires Gov. Daniel Scioli, her own Justicialist Party’s presidential nominee, making an already rough campaign even more complex.
During the past 12 years, Ms. Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, have governed the country in a style that critics dub “monarchical,” and they originally intended to alternate in the presidency to circumvent limits on consecutive terms.
Although Mr. Kirchner’s unexpected 2010 death torpedoed that plan, Ms. Fernandez has shrewdly preserved — and extended — the clan’s influence as she went after independent judges and prosecutors, cut federal funds from provinces led by critical governors and stacked government ministries and state-run companies with fierce loyalists.
“They continue to run the country as if they were its owners,” said opposition lawmaker Fernando Iglesias, author the local best-seller “It’s Peronism, Stupid,” referring to the country’s longtime strongman. “I believe the country is worse off than in 2001,” he said recalling the economic crisis that ended in riots and the resignations of two presidents.
A staggering economy, stubbornly high inflation and the mysterious death of a prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, have all led to Ms. Fernandez’s popularity suffering significantly since her 2011 landslide re-election. But many Argentines still back the president’s Peronist wing, and Mr. Scioli, her hand-picked successor, is still favored to take the reins after the Oct. 25 vote.
Mr. Scioli’s main challenger is Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, a pro-market onetime businessman who once was seen as a real threat to end the Kirchners’ dominance of Argentine politics with a platform seeking to end the state’s economic interventionist ways. But he has been falling in recent polls, hurt in part by the rise of a third candidate, dissident Peronist Sergio Massa, who claimed over a fifth of the vote in a recent poll.
Under Argentine electoral law, a candidate needs 45 percent of the vote — or 40 percent with no other candidate higher than 30 percent — to win outright in the Oct. 25 election. Otherwise, the top two finishers will compete in a runoff in late November.
With his poll numbers surging, Mr. Scioli has been taking a front-runner’s approach in recent days, even skipping a televised debate in which Mr. Macri and four other candidates participated. A survey by Ricardo Rouvier and Associates Oct. 2 gave the ruling party candidate 41.3 percent to 30.2 percent for Mr. Macri. Mr. Massa was third with 20.6 percent.
Preserving her clout
Political observers say Ms. Fernandez, despite her shaky political standing, has skillfully maneuvered to preserve her clout after she formally steps down Dec. 10.
To avoid an internal struggle among her own political base, Ms. Fernandez in June tapped Mr. Scioli to lead her Front for Victory, even though she never particularly warmed to the governor of the nation’s most populous province — a key electoral district. His coronation thus did not come without a major concession — the incumbent imposed her chief ideologue, Carlos Zannini, as Mr. Scioli’s running mate.
Nor did Ms. Fernandez hesitate to keep in play the possibility of another run for the presidency when term limits no longer keep her from doing so. “I hope that I do not have to return in 2019,” she said earlier this year, “because that means that who comes after me will be better than me.”
Mr. Zannini’s selection, meanwhile, is only part of a multipronged strategy to cement the Kirchner influence beyond the next president’s inauguration, said Daniel Arzadun, a political scientist and author of a book about the family’s role within Peronism.
Ms. Fernandez is enlisting allies in Congress, where her son and potential political heir, Maximo Kirchner, is running for a seat for the first time. Meanwhile, she can count on the Front for Victory’s ultraloyal grass-roots groups to help her maintain control of the Peronist movement — and come out on top in a potential power struggle with a Scioli-led government.
“The Kirchnerist wing will be left out [of government],” Mr. Arzadun said. But traditionally, “the political power in Argentina revolves around Peronism.”
Irritated by Kirchner loyalists’ lackluster commitment to his campaign, Mr. Scioli said last week that he had no intention of being a “transitional president.” If he moves into the Casa Rosada, the former powerboat racer may well take a page out of the family’s own playbook and cut deals with powerful provincial governors to counter the influence of his predecessor.
But Mr. Macri has not been shy about playing on fears that Ms. Kirchner will be the power behind the throne if her anointed successor wins. When Mr. Scioli declined to take part in the debate Sunday, Mr. Macri remarked, “It looks like [the ruling party] is having trouble defining who is going to govern if it wins the presidency.”
Ironically, a victory by Mr. Macri, the outgoing president’s longtime nemesis, might make it easier for Ms. Fernandez to unite Peronists behind her and hold on to power in the long run, Mr. Arzadun said.
Whomever Argentines pick as their next president Oct. 25, the Kirchners are unlikely to stand by idly during the next four years. But the voters’ choice still matters, Mr. Arzadun said.
Ms. Fernandez’s return “will be difficult,” he said, “if the next government does a good job.”