- - Thursday, October 19, 2017

BUENOS AIRES — When 12 million voters outside Argentina’s capital pick a senator in Sunday’s midterm elections, they will also be providing a crucial window on the comeback hopes of Latin America’s battered left.

That’s because the most prominent name on the ballot in “the Province” — the key electoral district that surrounds but does not include Buenos Aires proper — rings familiar in places much less provincial: former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Two years after her handpicked successor lost to center-right President Mauricio Macri in a hard-fought runoff, many believe Ms. Fernandez is laying the groundwork for a rematch in 2019 — this time with herself back on top of the ballot. With once-dominant leftist parties in other South and Central American countries having fallen on hard times in recent years, Sunday’s contest is attracting outsize attention both inside Argentina and beyond.

But the leftist former president — who, along with her late husband, Nestor Kirchner, dominated Argentinian politics for more than a decade — is finding campaigning much more arduous without the perks of incumbency and the bully pulpit.

As president Ms. Fernandez’s populist, anti-globalist message was “reinforced by media and political backing and by public resources to spread the message,” said Facundo Cruz, a political scientist at the University of Buenos Aires. But “as part of the opposition, that’s more difficult to do.”

It’s a quandary known to Ms. Fernandez’s allies in Brazil, where 14 years of Workers’ Party rule similarly ended just months after Mr. Macri’s victory, leading some to predict the ebbing of South America’s “pink tide” of left-leaning governments.

And while Ms. Fernandez has not been exactly coy about plotting her comeback, her onetime Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, brashly underlined this week that a corruption conviction will not keep him from seeking a return to the presidency next year.

But within their parties and in the wider political spectrum, both Ms. Fernandez and da Silva are up against a field much more crowded than when they were in office, Mr. Cruz noted.

“Today, Cristina [Fernandez] is one member of the opposition among all members, Lula [da Silva] is one member among all members in Brazil,” he said. “[And] populists do not take other members of the opposition into account when they create their political projects.”

The most promising strategy, thus far, is for Ms. Fernandez to turn Sunday’s vote — and every vote after — into a duel between Mr. Macri and herself. That’s exactly what she has done.

Throughout her campaign she has directed her famously fiery rhetoric almost exclusively at her successor, whom she again repeatedly slammed as a corporate puppet at a Monday rally in a stadium outside Buenos Aires.

Despite primaries and surveys suggesting a neck-and-neck race, her actual opponent in the Senate race, Esteban Bullrich, a member of the president’s bloc, was not mentioned to the crowd of 100,000.

“Twenty months into his government, we can see that Macri’s only loyalty is to big business, the vulture funds, his family, his friends [and] his business partners,” she said. “We need to build a political bloc, an alternative that gives all Argentines ideas, hopes and dreams.”

Quixotic quest

But critics like Martin Lousteau — a third-party candidate in Buenos Aires city who in 2008 quit as Ms. Fernandez’s finance minister and in April completed a 16-month stint as Mr. Macri’s ambassador in Washington — call the comeback talk both quixotic and counterproductive.

“I believe [Ms. Fernandez] cannot return to power, and we will prove it again in this election,” Mr. Lousteau said. “[What] Argentina needs to debate is not Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s return to power; it’s the way out of a system, a political and economical setup that creates recurring crises that result in the rise of populism.”

And even many a former ally is uneasy about the prospect of the 64-year-old Ms. Fernandez remaining the Peronist bloc’s standard-bearer, especially since the former president and several of her Cabinet members have been indicted on corruption charges linked to their last time in power.

Stalwart allies such as Daniel Filmus, who is leading her Citizens United bloc in the city of Buenos Aires, prefer to steer away from potentially toxic terms like “comeback.”

“We don’t think in terms of a ‘return,’” Mr. Filmus told The Washington Times. “We imagine building a new majority representing major interests that defend the national industry, national labor and the distribution of wealth.”

And while he concedes that it’s ultimately up to voters to decide whether Ms. Fernandez’s time in politics is up, he too puts the focus squarely on their longtime nemesis.

“There’s an electoral strategy — considering what is happening in Brazil these days under the presidency of [Michel] Temer — to warn of the policies the administration will advance if it feels legitimized,” Mr. Filmus said. “We are the force that works to stop Mauricio Macri’s austerity measures and ask him to keep his campaign promises.”

Yet the problem Ms. Fernandez and Mr. Filmus face, incidentally, is that most Argentines believe Mr. Macri did just that, Mr. Cruz noted.

“The citizenry does not perceive the [Macri] administration as not having kept its own electoral promises,” he said. “They said they were politicians who wouldn’t steal, who’d make politics transparent and who wouldn’t be corrupt. And until now, there hasn’t been any huge scandal.”

That, in turn, has helped many voters overlook the fact the long-anticipated recovery of the Argentine economy has been sluggish at best.

“In Latin America there is a strong trend toward a retrospective economic vote, to think backward and if things got better in economic terms, I’m voting for it,” Mr. Cruz noted. “But sometimes there’s a prospective vote, toward the future: ‘I trust the economy will improve, and that will help my own economy, so I vote for the administration.’”

To friends and foes alike, “la presidenta” remains for now an indispensable part of the political landscape, a trait she shares with da Silva, who, in a weak field of 2018 hopefuls, is again the most compelling figure in Brazilian politics.

Ms. Fernandez‘ candidacy and the bizarre tale of a young indigenous rights activist who went missing two months ago, and whose body was only found this week, have dominated the coverage. But Sunday’s vote is not expected to tip the balance of power in either house of the national parliament, where Mr. Macri’s Cambiemos party is the biggest single force. An improving economy has boosted Mr. Macri’s hopes in the midterm vote, and analysts say a strong showing Sunday could aid his policy agenda and make him a strong favorite for re-election in 2019.

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