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Argentina’s voters set to usher Peronists back to power

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Via Financial Times

Peronist politician Alberto Fernández is on the cusp of seizing the presidency from Argentina’s Mauricio Macri in polls on Sunday which investors say risk deepening the indebted country’s economic woes.

Analysts say it is a foregone conclusion that the Peronists will return to power after Mr Fernández largely won national primaries in August — widely regarded as a good barometer of sentiment — amid yet another of the country’s endemic economic crises.

Argentina is mired in problems — inflation is running at 55 per cent and the economy is in recession. Whoever wins must tackle the immediate task of renegotiating with the IMF over its $101 debt pile.

If his victory is confirmed on Sunday, it would be a big reversal of fortune for Mr Fernández and his running mate Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who many believe is the real power behind the Peronist resurgence.

Just two years ago, the Peronist party, which ruled Argentina for all but six of the past 30 years, was divided and in disarray, roundly defeated by President Macri’s centre-right coalition in midterm elections.

It is unclear, however, which of the two Fernándezes will call the shots if they triumph: the firebrand populist Ms Fernández, whose eight-year presidency ended in 2015, or her namesake and former cabinet chief.

“Do you know why [we have recovered]?” Mr Fernández said during a campaign speech in the country’s agricultural heartland this month. “Because Cristina helped enormously towards that unity. Thank you Cristina. Really, thank you,” he roared, turning around to smile solicitously at his former boss.

Argentina was stunned when in May Ms Fernández announced she would put forward Mr Fernández for the elections and confine herself to running on the ticket as his deputy. It was unexpected because he had been critical of the former president after falling out with her a decade ago.

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Mr Fernández, who kept a low profile since leaving her government, working as a lawyer, political consultant and university lecturer, has emerged as a force in his own right since his candidacy was announced. Meanwhile, Ms Fernández has been largely absent during the campaign, not least because she has spent much of it in Cuba visiting her ailing daughter.

“They’ve almost been hiding her, partly so as not to scare off [more moderate] voters, and partly to allow Alberto Fernández to be the protagonist,” says Ignacio Labaqui, an analyst at Medley Global Advisors. 

But Ms Fernández galvanises the party faithful. Her appearance at the campaign this month — on a day commemorating the foundation of the Peronist movement in the 1940s — was the first time she had shared a stage with her former aide since primary elections in August. As the candidates approached the stage together, where screens projected images of General Juan Domingo Perón and his wildly popular second wife, Evita, excited supporters at the front of the crowd could be heard cheering only for Cristina.

If Ms Fernández does play a more assertive role once in power, it could pose a serious test for Mr Fernández, who is considered a pragmatic with a proven record of brokering deals.

At times though, he has betrayed a more hot-headed side — such as in a video that went viral on YouTube, in which he appears to push a drunken heckler to the floor.

“Alberto is a person who is very sure of himself,” said a close adviser. “[He] will have no trouble with Cristina . . . quite the opposite. Her decision to step aside speaks for itself.” The adviser said the former president was never to be seen in Mr Fernández’s offices. 

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Many suspect that Ms Fernández’s motivation for maintaining political power is to stay out of prison — she faces multiple corruption charges in Argentina’s courts.

“Cristina will allow Alberto to be his own man while things work out. But as soon as they don’t, naturally we can expect tensions within the ruling coalition,” said an international financier, who pointed out that Mr Fernández’s fragile coalition will face pressure from trade unions and social movements. 

Whether or not Mr Fernández can break free from his namesake will be critical to his chances if, as widely expected, Sunday marks the end of the Macri era and the start of a new Peronist presidency.

“Alberto’s first task in office is going to be to establish himself as boss,” says Felipe Noguera, a political consultant in Buenos Aires. “If he doesn’t do that, his presidency will be over before it starts.”

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