Latin America Advisor

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How Has CFK’s Move Altered Argentina’s Race?

Former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner recently announced that she would be running for vice president on a ticket headed by her former cabinet chief, Alberto Fernández. // File Photo: Facebook site of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Argentina VP Candidate Cristina Fernandez LAA190530

In a surprising turn, former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner announced on May 18 that she will be running for vice president in the country’s October election, with her former cabinet chief, Alberto Fernández, as the presidential candidate. She had been widely expected to challenge current President Mauricio Macri, who is seeking a second term, by running for president herself. How has the announcement altered the race? Which issues will Alberto Fernández prioritize during the campaign? Why is he leading the ticket instead of Cristina, and does she have a better chance at a comeback by betting on the vice presidency? How big of a role will the corruption trial against Cristina Fernández, which recently began, play in the elections?

Graciela C. Römer, director of Graciela Römer & Asociados in Buenos Aires: “Cristina Kirchner (CFK)’s decision to name her former chief of staff as the head of the ticket has affected the game of alliances in the upcoming presidential race. It was a clever move that aims to broaden the base of support for the Kirchnerista sector of Peronism, with the main objective of unifying a fragmented Peronism, which was a manifestation of an identity crisis that was heightened by CFK’s leadership during her term. The move would allow her to break her own electoral ceiling—rejection levels are at around 58-60 percent—to either win in the first round or win the runoff by drawing the support of independent sectors and, above all, provincial governors. Alberto Fernández is a skillful political operator with good access to the media, the business sector and to governors, and who, above all, has an image of historical affinity with the center-right. His appointment seeks, image-wise, to move toward the political center and thus weaken the growth of Federal Peronism and Consenso 19, a bloc composed of Peronist and anti-Kirchnerista leaders and a former minister in Néstor Kirchner’s administration who has a good relationship with a segment of the radical faction. The shift to the center could also affect Macri, given the polarization surrounding CFK, as her negative image would have hurt her in an almost certain runoff. The Cambiemos coalition’s challenges are: a divided Peronism; maintaining the Macri-CFK polarization; stabilizing the currency and inflation; and maintaining expectations that the change promised in 2015 requires a second term. It’s difficult but not impossible.”

Andrés Asiain, director of the Scalabrini Ortiz Center for Economic and Social Studies in Buenos Aires: “Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s announcement to cede the presidential candidacy to Alberto Fernández shook up Argentine politics. There seems to be several reasons behind the decision: on one hand are personal issues linked to her private family life while in office; and on the other hand, disarticulation of the axis of Mauricio Macri’s campaign, which is focused on confrontation with CFK. Another reason is to expand the spectrum of unity within Peronism—the new candidate has dialogue with various sectors. Another reason, no less important, is to build ties with parts of the large local business groups disenchanted with Macri but with misgivings about CFK. All these reasons are condensed in the trial against CFK for deviation of funds in public works during her administration. The trial not only threatened to move the campaign debate away from the economic and social crises that Argentina is experiencing and toward issues linked to corruption during the Kirchner administrations, but it also has become the cornerstone of an institutional coup similar to that used in Brazil to topple Dilma and imprison Lula, or in Ecuador to persecute former President Correa. Corruption trials against popular leaders of several Latin American countries seem to constitute a new Condor Plan, promoted by Washington, to avoid their return to power—a plan that uses media communications, including social media, to spread fake news, intelligence and members of the judicial apparatus with the goal of shutting down politicians that are not to Washington’s liking. The same scheme is extended to local business groups that compete with North American companies in several areas. The new electoral formula of Peronism is an attempt at an alliance to face such a plan in the political arena.”

Charles H. Blake, professor of political science at James Madison University’s School of Public & International Affairs: “President Mauricio Macri promised to reduce inflation—only to see prices rise, recession deepen and living standards decay. Despite this economic debacle, recent polls had shown Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in a virtual dead heat with Macri, were they both to reach a runoff. They lead the two largest voter blocs, but each has more virulent critics than firm supporters. Rather than see her Citizens Unity bloc lose to a vulnerable incumbent, the newly announced ticket tries to strike a delicate balance in which Alberto Fernández might appeal to centrist voters while Fernández de Kirchner’s presence mobilizes her center-left base. The ticket’s electoral impact will unfold in the months ahead, but the short-term impact has been positive for Fernández de Kirchner. She regained the political initiative right after a Peronist rival, Juan Schiaretti, handily defeated Macri’s Let’s Change coalition in Córdoba’s provincial election. She also made her bloc’s ticket less vulnerable to a scenario in which she eventually could be barred from running. Moving forward, two questions loom large. First, will Macri cede his candidacy to Governor María Eugenia Vidal? Polls show Vidal in a tight re-election race as governor of Buenos Aires but with slightly more support than Macri were she to run for the presidency. Second, can the aspiring centrist presidential candidates—Juan Schiaretti, Sergio Massa and Roberto Lavagna, among others—unite to give one of them a chance to end up in a presidential runoff election against either the Let’s Change candidate or the Fernández-Fernández ticket?”

Nicolás Saldías, researcher at the Argentina Project at the Wilson Center: “Former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s decision to run as a vice presidential candidate and nominate her own presidential candidate, Alberto Fernández (AF), was unforeseen by analysts and upended expectations. It changed the equation for President Mauricio Macri’s Cambiemos coalition and the centrist Peronists grouped in the Alternativa Federal. It increased jockeying between competing factions in the non-Kirchnerista coalitions (Radicales and Massismo, among others), and rumors of changing electoral formulas (Plan Vidal) have grown. This feverish reaction occurred even though no reliable polls emerged to determine if AF changed the public’s perception of a CFK ticket. CFK’s choosing AF (who was cabinet chief under President Néstor Kirchner and during the first year of CFK’s presidency) is an effort to ‘Néstorize’ the damaged Kirchner brand. Argentines remember Néstor’s term positively, a legacy Roberto Lavagna (Néstor’s one-time economy minister) is also capitalizing on. The same cannot be said of CFK’s time in office, defined by deep polarization and economic stagnation. After AF left CFK’s cabinet, he became an outspoken critic of her government and supported anti-CFK candidates. AF claims this proves he’ll be independent, but this is unlikely as he lacks a popular base, making him politically dependent on CFK. AF’s statements questioning the judiciary, common among those in the Kirchner camp, is a red flag for anti-corruption efforts and institutional integrity in Argentina. On the economy, AF is a pragmatist, but his pragmatism may cause tensions with the Kirchnerista base (La Cámpora and social movements) that will demand an end to austerity.”

Paula Alonso, associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University: “The launch of Cristina’s vice presidential candidacy was an unprecedented, surprising and smart move. She used social media to control a narrative of sacrifice for the common good, to confirm herself as the sole decision maker and to underline her power. Since the announcement that Alberto Fernández—a skillful negotiator lacking his own electoral support—will be the presidential candidate, there has been much speculation regarding whether, if elected, he would eventually step down and cede the presidency to Cristina, or pardon her or other members of her government for any acts of corruption. In a country where politics moves at lightning and dizzying pace, it is too early to gauge the impact of this move on the final outcome of the election. Many pieces still need to fall into place, including who will be Macri’s vice presidential candidate and what will Sergio Mazza and the evasive Roberto Lavagna decide to do. The good news for Macri is that the Radical Party ratified its alliance with Cambiemos, although with increased demands. While politicians speed up their negotiations and boost their spending on polling different scenarios, no one is discussing policy. The fight is for the 40 percent of the still-undecided electorate, which is surely frustrated by a presidential campaign currently reduced to CFK’s attacks on Macri’s weak economic performance versus Cambiemos portraying itself as the saviors of the republic from populism and the guarantors of the end of impunity.”

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