- - Thursday, October 24, 2019

Cristina Fernandez, whose Peronists were kicked to the curb by voters just four years ago, could be on the brink of a remarkable comeback.

Ms. Fernandez, who with her late husband, Nestor Kirchner, dominated the Argentine political scene for a dozen years, will be on the ballot Sunday as the vice presidential running mate to Alberto Fernandez, no relation. Analysts expect her to be calling the shots if, as polls suggest, the populist left comes back to power.

Despite some last-minute momentum in the final weeks of the campaign of center-right Argentine President Mauricio Macri, his populist predecessor remains the odds-on favorite to emerge triumphant, a reflection of the Macri government’s inability to deliver on many of its economic promises.

The Fernandez-Fernandez ticket resoundingly defeated Mr. Macri in the Aug. 11 national primaries and could rack up such a large plurality Sunday — 45% of the overall vote, or least 40% with no rival within 10 percentage points — to avoid a runoff next month.

After his 16-point primary defeat triggered a 30% drop in the value of the Argentine peso, Mr. Macri, a former businessman who once made deals with developer Donald Trump, made things worse by seeming to blame voters for “returning to the past, [which] the world views as the end of Argentina.”

After insisting he felt their pain amid a prolonged recession, Mr. Macri decreed tax freezes and price controls to win back a disenchanted middle class. Under the motto “Yes, we can,” he held massive rallies and marches across the nation.

The incumbent was widely judged as the winner of the second televised presidential debate Sunday. He highlighted the checkered legacy of Ms. Fernandez, whose two terms were marked by repeated corruption scandals and a government funding crisis.

“This week … Alberto Fernandez told the truth for the first time in the campaign: ‘Cristina and I are the same,’” Mr. Macri said. “[Their] problem is how to hide that.”

Economic decline

Although the comeback of Mr. Macri’s predecessor divides Argentines, the economic situation is proving too dire for him to outmaneuver the grand coalition of formerly fractured Peronists the Fernandezes built, sociologist Marcos Novaro said.

Despite Mr. Macri’s reputation as an economic manager, the peso’s value fell and poverty and inflation rates soared during his term. Argentina’s national credit rating has been downgraded, and the International Monetary Fund last year approved the largest bailout package in its nearly 75-year history: a $57 billion for the faltering Argentine economy.

“He’s tried very hard; Macri maintained his competitiveness,” Mr. Novaro said. “[But] a majority has already accepted that the Peronists will return to government.”

Even Mr. Macri’s longtime supporters, such as La Nacion columnist Joaquin Morales Sola, no longer share the president’s optimism.

“Macri underestimated Cristina: She liquidated him,” Mr. Morales Sola said. “Macri’s page has already been passed. Page turned.”

If Mr. Fernandez is sworn in as president on Dec. 10 as expected, the columnist added, he will likely be highly dependent on Ms. Fernandez and the “disciplined” lawmakers of her La Campora youth organization who — unlike his state-level allies — won’t ask for pork out of empty federal coffers.

“The governors’ support will cost him more than La Campora’s support,” Mr. Morales Sola said. “The governors will charge him for everything, and Cristina perhaps won’t.”

Mr. Fernandez not only must contend with a vice president not known for playing second fiddle, but he is also inheriting her considerable political baggage.

Ms. Fernandez, whose 2017 election as a senator has given her immunity from arrest, is a defendant in 13 criminal probes accusing her of massive corruption and, in one case, “high treason” over an alleged cover-up of Iran’s involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.

Her former vice president, Amado Boudou; planning minister, Julio De Vido; and public works secretary, Jose Lopez, are all serving lengthy prison terms on corruption convictions.

Mr. Fernandez, a lawyer who served as Ms. Fernandez’s first Cabinet chief, struggled in Sunday’s debate to explain how, while working at the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential residence, he remained unaware of the shady activity.

“When I had disagreements, I resigned and went home,” the candidate said. “Since I left, no judge has ever cited me to provide explanations. … I’ve got nothing to do with the corruption.”

Base politics

To a remarkable extent, Ms. Fernandez has held on to her staunchly loyal political base, where concerns over her ongoing trials and the apparent ideological clash within her coalition are all but inadmissible.

“I believe there is no tension at all,” Alicia Castro, Ms. Fernandez’s former ambassador to Venezuela, told The Washington Times.

Although Mr. Macri’s four-year term has brought Argentina “hunger” and “misery,” Ms. Castro would not say whether the next administration should be seen as a continuation of Mr. Kirchner’s and Ms. Fernandez’s 2003-2015 rule.

Ricardo Kirschbaum, editor-in-chief of the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarin, noted that Mr. Fernandez said he does not want to make the economic mistakes of his running mate’s Peronist past.

“He has promised a moderate leftist government and carefully distanced himself from the radical policies of his running mate,” Mr. Kirschbaum wrote in an analysis for the journal Foreign Affairs. “Unlike her, he does not intend to stand up to Washington, defend Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, attack the independent media, or silence his critics.”

Whether Mr. Fernandez could truly embrace his running mate’s past penchant to align Argentina with leftist governments in the region, though, is at best doubtful, given the Peronists’ big-tent approach.

Former Cabinet Chief Sergio Massa, a longtime personal friend of President Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani and a harsh critic of Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro, is unlikely to warm to such an idea.

Mr. Massa, who broke with Ms. Fernandez once before, is key to maintaining the fragile Peronist coalition that may catapult her back into power.

Caught between so many pressures and variables — and stuck with an economy that seems to be in perpetual crisis — a new Fernandez administration may find itself with virtually no room to maneuver, analysts warned.

“Nobody knows how [Mr. Fernandez] will govern,” said Mr. Novaro, the sociologist. “He’ll be squeezed by a ton of actors who’ll have power over him.”

As a consequence, Mr. Fernandez’s plans for governing remain shrouded in mystery just days before the election, Mr. Morales Sola said.

“What’s he going to do? Nobody knows,” the columnist said. “He doesn’t know, either.”

It would be naive to believe that Mr. Macri’s likely exit will somehow immunize Argentina from outbursts of public anger like the recent unrest in Ecuador and Chile, Mr. Novaro said.

“It’s a situation prone to explode, and in Argentina, we’re experts in explosions,” he said. “That’s why the challenge for Alberto Fernandez is so enormous.”

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