Cristina Fernández de Kirchner may prove a tough act to follow

Argentina’s next president will inherit tricky economic problems from the incumbent

Argentina’s outgoing president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner: there is a possibility she will have to fight corruption charges. Photogrpah: Marcos Brindicci

Argentina’s outgoing president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner: there is a possibility she will have to fight corruption charges. Photogrpah: Marcos Brindicci

 

A visit to the dreary cemetery of Río Gallegos leaves little doubt as to the hero of this windswept Patagonian town, where bleak open spaces rise to treeless horizons and leaden skies.

A marble mausoleum, modelled on Napoleon’s tomb, honours Néstor Kirchner, former governor of this province, who unexpectedly won Argentina’s 2003 presidential election and went on to create a left-wing ideology known as Kirchnerismo.

Kirchnerismo is a contemporary take on Peronism and, like its forebear, is less of an ideology than a ruling style, defined by populist social welfare programmes, hefty doses of nationalism and the concentration of power.

Although Kirchner died in 2010, his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who succeeded him as president in 2007, has fought to keep the banner of Kirchnerismo aloft. Both Fernández and Kirchnerismo itself will probably prove difficult legacies for whoever wins Argentina’s presidential run-off vote on November 22nd.

Whether victory is secured by Mauricio Macri, the centre-right mayor of Buenos Aires who leads in the polls and wants to sweep Kirchnerismo away, or Daniel Scioli, the more leftist government-backed governor of Buenos Aires province, both will have to contend with Fernández’s considerable vestigial power, and the economic mess she is leaving behind.

Fall from glory

“Kirchnerismo is like an aircraft without an undercarriage,” says Javier Bielle, a former opposition provincial legislator, who believes Fernández has a “pathological resistance” to letting go of power. “Either Kirchnerismo stays in the air, or the landing is going to be dramatic at least, tragic at worst.”

A similar fall from glory characterises many of the region’s other left-wing leaders, from Venezuela to Brazil, where their popularity rode high while economies did well, but has since cratered as the commodity price crash has revealed that much of that prosperity was only a facade.

Fernández, though, is leaving while the economy is still ahead – just. Rather, it is her successor who will have to deal with several ticking economic time bombs, including a widening fiscal deficit, high inflation, dollar shortages and a legal dispute with “holdout” creditors.

“Make no mistake: the next administration is inheriting a very toxic economic legacy,” says Patrick Esteruelas, an analyst at Emso Partners, an emerging markets asset manager.

Indeed, the political fallout from an economic adjustment could leave Fernández well placed to become de facto leader of the opposition, many speculate. Others think she could even attempt to return to the presidency in 2019 at the next election, once the economy is cleaned up.

Political power

Whatever the case, Fernández’s power base is likely to remain the remote Santa Cruz province from which she and her husband launched their political careers. The main avenue of its scruffy capital, Río Gallegos, has been renamed after Néstor Kirchner, while his sister, Alicia Kirchner, was elected governor last month.

 

“Santa Cruz is a risk for whoever governs the country next,” says Bielle. “Alicia Kirchner is just a front: she doesn’t have real political power. That belongs to Cristina and [her son] Máximo.” He is leader of the radical youth group La Cámpora, whose followers hold influential state positions.

Certainly, given Fernández’s penchant for drama – she often models herself on Argentina’s beloved heroine Evita Perón – few can see the 62-year-old withdrawing from the public eye.

“Surely, to start off with, she will want to enjoy her grandchildren for a while, but after that, let’s see. I can’t imagine her staying away from politics,” says Pablo González, the vice-governor-elect of Santa Cruz. “Cristina will remain a central political figure in Argentina and the world. Without doubt she is one of the most important politicians in South America in the last 50 years.”

One reason why Fernández is unlikely to turn her back on power is the possibility she will have to fight corruption charges. Her personal fortune has multiplied tenfold since her husband took office, and her hotel chain, Hotesur, is being investigated for money-laundering.

“We all know how [the Kirchner couple and their associates] used to live, and today the wealth they enjoy is in a different league from what they could have made working,” says Roberto Giubetich, mayor-elect of Río Gallegos. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015

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