30 May 2019

Cristina Fernandez’s Gambit Shocks Argentina, Adding Even More Election Drama

Frida Ghitis 

Three days before she was scheduled to go on trial for corruption, and nevertheless still leading in the polls to become the next president of Argentina, former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner dropped a bombshell last Saturday. As everyone expected, she was throwing her hat in the ring, but to just about everyone’s surprise, she announced she had decided to run for vice president, not president. Was it madness, desperation—or brilliance? Turns out, there’s method behind Fernandez’s seemingly strange move.

The announcement on May 18 came in a tweet to her more than 5 million followers that included a 12-minute-long campaign video in which she revealed that she had asked Alberto Fernandez—no relation—to run at the head of the ticket, with her as the No. 2. Argentines collectively gasped.

Alberto Fernandez served as chief of staff to Cristina Fernandez’s late husband, former President Nestor Kirchner, between 2003 and 2007. Later, when she succeeded Kirchner as president, Alberto Fernandez kept the position for a brief time.

The Fernandez-Fernandez ticket is an intriguing one, and a clever tactical move for the embattled former president. Alberto Fernandez has never run for office on his own. He was elected for a short stint on the Buenos Aires city legislature on a party list almost two decades ago. But he is a smart political operator and, in sharp contrast to many of the figures who have been close to Cristina Fernandez, he has no cloud of corruption hanging over him.

In fact, he is on record harshly criticizing her. Toward the end of her second term, he offered withering disapproval of his now-running mate. “Everything she has done regarding the judiciary is deplorable,” he said at the time. “Everything she has done with Iran is deplorable… regarding the second Cristina administration, I struggle to find any value.” 

But as news organizations excavated their files in search of such gems, Alberto Fernandez started making statements that explain one of the two reasons why Cristina Fernandez chose to tie her fate to him. He called the mountain of legal charges against her unwarranted “political persecution,” essentially labeling the cases a witch hunt—as she has, making that case at every opportunity. With that, he signaled that if elected, he would be her protector.

Critics jumped on the statement as evidence of their suspicions. The former president, they claimed, had made a deal to safeguard her from the law. “It’s a trap,” said Alfredo Cornejo, the governor of Mendoza state and an ally of President Mauricio Macri’s Cambiemos, or Let’s Change, coalition, claiming the strategy aims to put Cristina Fernandez in power and guarantee her impunity. That word echoed across social media. Writing on Twitter, former presidential candidate Elisa Carrio warned: “They are proposing Jack the Ripper. He guarantees them all impunity.” 

Observers suspected an arrangement modeled on Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev: Alberto Fernandez might hold the title of president, but Cristina Fernandez would preside over the government.

Early surveys after Fernandez’s surprise announcement suggest her gambit may be paying off.But first, she would have to win the election in October, and that explains the second reason she chose to run as vice president. There is reason to believe her running mate could prove helpful.

Cristina Fernandez leads a militant leftist branch of her Justicialist Party, commonly known as the Peronists, which is deeply divided. Moderates are reluctant to return her to power. Alberto Fernandez, in contrast, appeals to moderates, spanning the entire Peronist spectrum. He has the potential to unite the field behind a single candidate: himself. The announcement has already led one dissident Peronist, Sergio Massa—another former chief of staff to Cristina Fernandez who ran for president in 2015—to say he is willing to listen to the new, double Fernandez ticket. Massa, who is running for president again this year, has been polling in fourth place. But now there’s talk that the Fernandez-Fernandez team is offering to back him if he runs instead for the powerful post of governor of Buenos Aires, a launch pad for a future presidential campaign.

Looming large above it all are Cristina Fernandez’s legal troubles. Three days after the campaign announcement, her first trial got underway. She currently enjoys immunity from arrest because she is a senator, but the cases and the trial are still proceeding.

The trial that opened Tuesday stems from just one of 11 separate indictments. The former president is charged with funneling deliberately overpriced public works contracts to a man known to be close to her husband, and then receiving multimillion-dollar kickbacks.

She has steadfastly denied all the charges in a tone that sounds a lot like U.S. President Donald Trump. Last August, speaking in the Senate, she declared, “I regret nothing I did.” When the trial started, she posted dozens of tweets aimed at undercutting the prosecutors’ case. In one, she called the case “an act of persecution with a single objective: to place an opposition former president in the dock of the accused while in the middle of a presidential campaign.” The cases, in fact, started coming together long before the campaign. If found guilty, she could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. But even then, she could not be arrested as long as she is in the Senate. If elected vice president, she could potentially face impeachment, a complicated process that would require two-thirds of the legislature to approve her removal.

Still, a guilty verdict now could have an impact on the election, and it may be Macri’s best shot at keeping his job. A center-right former businessman who vowed to revive Argentina’s economy after years of chaos under Fernandez and her populist agenda, Macri has seen his prospects for reelection fade as deep economic problems persist. He promised that living standards would start to climb after a difficult period of reform, in which the economy was reopened to market forces. Instead, the economy plunged into recession after a harsh drought and a flight by foreign investors.

Until last weekend, polls had shown Cristina Fernandez either tied with Macri or slightly ahead. Early surveys after her surprise announcement suggest her gambit may be paying off. Last week, one poll showed her with a 9-point lead over Macri, 35 to 26 percent. After the announcement, she doubled the size of her lead, polling at 40 percent over Macri’s 22 percent. 

Her move was also meant to undercut the Peronists who were challenging her. But surprisingly, the third-place candidate in the polls, 77-year-old economist Roberto Lavagna, who last served as finance minister in the early 2000s, saw his position strengthened. In that same poll, 14 percent of respondents said they would vote for Lavagna, up from 11 percent before Cristina Fernandez’s announcement. 

The election is still five months away, and the early impact of Cristina Fernandez’s maneuver may not signal a lasting trend. What she has confirmed with her shock announcement is that the path ahead is full of surprises. The one thing Argentina’s voters are assured of as the election approaches is more high drama.

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post. Her WPR column appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.

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