Cristina Kirchner’s big political comeback

7th November 2019

By Amadeo Gandolfo

Cristina Kirchner’s big political comeback

Not long ago, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) was seen by many as a battered has-been of Argentine politics, with local TV and newspapers focusing on corruption accusations against her after a string of electoral defeats.

In the 2019 campaign, however, she was undisputedly the greatest winner besides the president elect, outsmarting the opposition and proving to be much more resilient than most expected, with a surprise key move that led to the re-unification of the Peronist party.

</p> <h2><strong>Three defeats and one victory</strong></h2> <p>Fernández de Kirchner’s presidential terms were marked by extreme polarization and a progressive closure and hemorrhage of political allies from her political space, which made it progressively more inbred and sycophantic. This had a lot to do with her political style: abrasive, confrontational, verbose, with a strong “us-vs-them” rhetoric, incapable of admitting no wrong. Fernández de Kirchner is the kind of politician that elicits a strong “love her or hate her” gut feeling.</p> <p>This style of politics was also reflected in the outcomes of every political campaign CFK steered as president: she lost three out of four, only winning reelection. In 2009, a congressional ticket led by Néstor Kirchner lost against businessman Francisco de Narvaez, whose campaign highlighted crime and taxation and secured the backing of middle classes who felt their concerns dismissed by her government. In the next mid-terms in 2013, her candidates lost again against Peronist-breakaway Sergio Massa, the beginning of a series of party divisions that would help explain further losses.</p> <p>And then came the presidential election of 2015, arguably the worst of the Kirchnerite campaigns, with the former president endorsing candidate Daniel Scioli at the eleventh hour (and campaigning for his rival in the primaries, Florencio Randazzo, until all hope for him was lost). This lack of political vision was reproduced on the ticket for the crucial Buenos Aires governorship. After a bloody primary between Aníbal Fernández (no relation) and Julián Dominguez, Fernández went on to lose the province against María Eugenia Vidal. The toll of the 2015 presidential election was such that some insiders even believed that Fernández de Kirchner had boycotted the campaign on some level due to her distrust of Scioli and her will to conserve a loyal political base that wasn’t shared with any other Peronist politician.</p> <p>The only win during that period came in the 2011 presidential campaign, a year after the death of her husband Néstor Kirchner. It was an unprecedented landslide: 54 percent of the vote, with Hermes Binner, the runner up, only getting 16 percent, following a battery of progressive measures that helped turn around what looked like an emerging social crisis following 2009 and a heavily divided opposition field.</p> <p>But some believe that win was the serpent’s egg for many of the worst politics of her second term, with Fernández de Kirchner reading it as a green light to move forward with what her and a narrow circle of allies wanted, exacerbating the divisive and “can do no wrong” rhetoric that isolated her.</p> <h2><strong>The mother of all defeats</strong></h2> <p>Still, Fernández de Kirchner only hit rock bottom in 2017. After two years during which she maintained a low profile and shied away from politics, she decided to run again, this time as Senator for the Buenos Aires province.</p> <p>She stepped away from the Peronist <em>Partido Justicialista</em> (Justicialist Party) and announced a new political organization: <em>Unidad Ciudadana</em> (Citizen’s Union). She claimed that it was the time to leave divisions behind and unite all Argentines who believed in social justice and progressive politics, never mind if they were Peronists or not.</p> <p>But Fernández de Kirchner didn’t have the luster she once possessed. Even though she was still loved by around 30 percent of the population, she was heavily hounded by several corruption cases that were spearheaded by Mauricio Macri’s government, which saw them as a good political strategy to keep the public focused on the troubles of the past. Amongst them was the finding of aide José López with bags filled with cash on June 2016, the imprisonment of Lázaro Baez (a public contractor with close ties to the Kirchner family) a money laundering case linked to one of her family’s hotels and accusations about selling dollar futures contracts massively below market prices during the last few months of her administration, saddling the country’s Central Bank with risky debts.</p> <p>All these cases were heavily amplified by mainstream media in the run up to the election, in which she competed with Esteban Bullrich, then Minister of Education, an uncharismatic Cambiemos official, often bullied on social media for acts such as writing a poem honoring a fetus. The loss against Bullrich, in her stronghold of Buenos Aires, where she was still much loved, seemed to spell the end for her apparently dwindling political career. Even though she won a seat in the Senate, it was only a matter of time before she faced jail time and infamy, her enemies believed.</p> <h2><strong>Exiting the labyrinth</strong></h2> <p>But much can change in Argentina over the course of two years. In this case, what happened is well known: a heavily-resisted pension reform heralded a calamitous 2018 for Cambiemos which saw a violent 50 drop in the value the peso and 47.6 percent yearly inflation, the highest figures in 27 years, and a return to the IMF to try and steady the ship. Part of her against-the-odds comeback can be attributed to Cambiemos’ mismanagement. As Napoleon once said: “Never interrupt your enemies when they’re making a mistake”.</p> <p>But it wouldn’t have been possible without her political acumen. When 2019 started, Peronism was still embroiled in the great debate it had been trapped since 2015: the former president had a sizable portion of the vote, but not enough to win the presidency; meanwhile, none of the other potential candidates had the numbers to compete against her for the title of leader of the opposition. This conundrum was internally described as “Without Cristina we can’t, but with Cristina it’s not enough”.</p> <p>When she announced on May 18th that she would be running as vice-president alongside Alberto Fernández, the announcement was met with disbelief and amazement. She justified it echoing the words of Juan Domingo Perón: “First, our motherland; then, the movement, lastly, the men and women in power”. In a way, she was also echoing the historical abdication made by Eva Perón in 1951, when she stepped down from the presidential ticket pressured by the military.</p> <p>In hindsight, the real political brilliance of CFK was on the dolphin she chose. Alberto Fernández was one of the first victims of repeated purges of high ranking officials who had worked with Néstor Kirchner. He spent several years heavily criticizing the economic decisions made by CFK and her aides. By picking him, the former president was tacitly taking the self-critical step that many demanded from her, all without looking weak or defeated.</p> <p>Once anointed, she let Fernández (a political insider and a centrist) do the dirty work she wasn’t so willing to do: talking with the governors, wooing Sergio Massa, gathering the unions. She took a backseat and, perhaps aware of her abrasiveness, remained out of the spotlight. Time has proven that her bet was correct.</p> <p>Several questions, however, remain. The most pressing one is what role will she play on Alberto Fernández’s administration. Pundits closer to the outgoing ruling coalition claim she will be the power behind the throne; meanwhile, Kirchnerite loyalists claim that her commitment was towards recovering the executive branch for her party, and that she will now take a secondary role, letting Fernández make the tough decisions that a country in crisis faces and focusing on her role as the head of the Senate. Several judicial causes against her are still open, and many of them will make it to court during her term, something which could taint her further, and hostility against her in significant sectors of the middle class remains.</p> <p>But, in a country whose crises can often take down once-popular politicians and turn them into outcasts, her comeback has been a truly remarkable one, and her political future still remains open.</p> <p>

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Amadeo Gandolfo

Amadeo Gandolfo is an historian, journalist and researcher. He has worked at the CONICET (National Council For Scientific and Technical Research), writes at the Revista Crisis magazine and teaches at the University of Buenos Aires.