A divisive Peronist returns to power as VP in Argentina
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Divisive Peronist leader and former Argentine President Cristina Fernández is once again in a top position of power, a development that rattled investors Monday even as financial experts said it was unlikely the economically troubled South American country would fully return to her populist policies.
Thousands of jubilant supporters of Fernández’s running mate and new boss, Alberto Fernández, celebrated the nation’s return to the center-left after conservative incumbent President Mauricio Macri conceded defeat in Sunday’s election.
“We’re coming back! We’re coming back!” they chanted, waving sky-blue and white Argentine flags.
Alberto Fernández, who is no relation to the former president, had 48.1% of the votes compared to 40.4% for Macri, with almost 97% percent of the votes counted, election officials said. He needed 45% of the vote to avoid a runoff.
Alberto Fernández served as chief of staff from 2003 to 2007 for Cristina Fernández’s late husband and predecessor as president, Nestor Kirchner. He remained in the position during part of Cristina Fernández’s term as president but left after a conflict with farmers in 2008.
For many voters, placing the former aide at the top of the ticket made it more palatable. Cristina Fernández, who represents the more radical wing of the Peronist party, is both loathed and loved across the country. She also faces a string of corruption investigations, although she denies any wrongdoing.
“Today, Alberto is the president of all Argentines,” Cristina Fernández told supporters, some of whom brandished tattoos with her and Kirchner’s images.
Some worried that the Peronist victory would scare off investors and revive the interventionist policies that choked the economy with restrictions on imports, exports and foreign currency exchanges during Cristina Fernández’s rule from 2007 to 2015.
Argentina’s inflation rate already is one of the highest in the world, nearly one-third of Argentines are poor, and its currency has continued to plunge under Macri, who came into power in 2015 with promises to boost South America’s second-largest economy and one of the world’s top grain suppliers.
Ordinary Argentines are haunted by the country’s worst economic collapse in 2001-2002, when banks froze deposits, the local currency lost about 70% of its value and 1 in 5 people were unemployed. To protect themselves, many still stash dollars in vaults or under the mattress.
“The last two years have been brutal in Argentina,” said Benjamin Gedan, an Argentina expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Voters have suffered a painful recession, unimaginably high inflation and a debt crisis. No incumbent could survive in these conditions.”
When Alberto Fernández topped party primaries in August, stocks plummeted and the peso depreciated on investor fears of a return to the populist economic policies of Cristina Fernández. Argentina Central Bank president Guido Sandleris said that since then, Argentina has spent about $22 billion to guard the peso. He also promised Monday to protect the bank’s foreign reserves. And immediately after Sunday’s election results came in, the Central Bank announced it would sharply limit the amount of dollars that people can buy: to $200 a month from a previous $10,000 a month, until December.
The peso strengthened slightly to 63 per dollar, and markets remained fairly steady Monday; investors had enough time to factor in a Fernández victory, pulling their dollars out of Argentina ahead of time, said Buenos Aires-based economic analyst, Enrique Dentrice.
The investors “already took all the funds that they had to take” so the dollars that are left “is what Argentines have,” Dentrice said.
Still, economic fears have not disappeared. Alberto Fernández is “an untested leader” whose proposed economic solutions remain a mystery, Gedan said.
“The crucial question is what the dynamic will be between the pragmatic president and more ideological and polarizing vice president,” said Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. Shifter said Cristina Fernández has hard-core support of about 30% of Argentines. “The nature of that power struggle will determine the direction of Argentina’s economic, social and foreign policy in coming years.”
Shifter said that despite some fears, a return of the populist policies under Cristina Fernández is highly unlikely.
“Today Argentina simply does not have the economic conditions for unchecked spending,” he said. “This will not be a replay of her presidency.”
Cristina Fernández and Nestor Kirchner dominated Argentina’s political scene for 12 years. Many credit them for restoring its sense of pride and sovereignty after the 2001-2002 crisis by negotiating or paying off most of Argentina’s defaulted debt.
At “Lo de Nestor’s,” or “Nestor’s Place,” a themed bar celebrating the former first couple, large framed wall photos show them celebrating with big crowds, embracing, and meeting with the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Bolivian President Evo Morales and other leftist leaders. Wall plaques celebrate the Kirchners’ nationalization of the pension system, main airline and oil company.
“Her return means that Argentina’s society ... understood that politics should work in a different way,” said bar manager Gabriela Cabanillas.
Insurance worker Edgardo Narbais disagreed.
Cristina Fernández’s return to power means “less institutions, more harassment, and just using chicanery to build power,” Narbais said. “This is a return to the past.”
On the election trail, Fernández criticized Macri’s decision to seek a record $56 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Now, markets will closely monitor the new president’s approach to an institution that many Argentines blame for creating the conditions that led to the economic collapse at the beginning of the decade.
“Argentina will be on even more uncertain ground as negotiations with the IMF could go either way,” said Monica de Bolle, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Associated Press journalists Paul Byrne, Almudena Calatrava and Natacha Pisarenko in Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Paul Harloff in New York, contributed to this report.