Former Cabinet chief thrust into spotlight after Cristina Fernández de Kirchner delivers a shock announcement that reshapes the race for the Casa Rosada.
Alberto Angel Fernández was not exactly an unknown until this week. But last Saturday he was thrust into the spotlight, thanks to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s explosive announcement that she would run for the vice-presidency, with him heading the ticket in her stead.
The 60-year-old has a wealth of political experience, including five years as Cabinet chief. Until most recently he had even been widely considered as the power behind the throne of the ex-president’s ambitions. But now, thanks to this electoral earthquake, he will find himself under a whole new level of scrutiny.
Much of the strategy behind this shock decision can only be explained by the profile of Alberto Fernández – he is generally viewed as a supreme pragmatist who thus balances the strident leftist Peronism represented by Fernández de Kirchner and broadens her appeal, as well as deflecting her high negative ratings which exceed her strong opinion poll performances. It also supposedly makes it easier for Peronists who have criticised the former president (like Fernández himself) to back this ticket.
With Alberto rather than Cristina Fernández at the top of the ticket, it is also thought that the markets will be less spooked since his approach to economic issues in general is more pragmatic.
Underlining the theme, in the video she posted last Saturday the former president said she was “convinced that this formula that we are proposing is the one that best expresses what Argentina needs at this moment to summon the broadest social and political and economic sectors.”
LAW AND LOYALTIES
Born in this capital as the son of a City magistrate, a porteño identity and the legal profession defined him from an early age – graduating in law from the University of Buenos Aires in 1983, he briefly taught at UBA as an assistant professor.
But his graduation year of 1983 was also marked by Argentina’s return to democracy and it did not take the young Fernández long to enter politics. He started on the fringe with Alberto Asseff, a selfstyled patriot heading the tiny right-wing Nationalist Constitutional-UNIR Party (which has backed the Rodríguez Saás of San Luis at times).
But Fernández could not be absent from the corridors of power for very long. In 1985 he joined the Economy Ministry’s legal department as its deputy head, thus working for the Radical administration of thenpresident Raúl Alfonsín and also for deputies in Congress.
The change of helm from Alfonsín to Carlos Menem in 1989 did not derail his career – he switched political loyalties although not ministries. He had already developed a close relationship with Menem’s economic czar Domingo Cavallo (a champion of privatisation and deregulation) and served as Insurance Superintendent through to Cavallo’s resignation in 1995.
Various graft allegations arose in that period although they were never formalised. He also worked on Argentina’s negotiating team with both Mercosur and GATT’s Uruguay Round.
His alignment with Cavallo continued into the 21st century and following work on unsuccessful Peronist presidential candidate Eduardo Duhalde’s campaign in 1999, this friendship led to the only elected post in his career so far – he entered the Buenos Aires City Legislature in 2000 on a list headed by the mayoral ticket of Cavallo and Gustavo Beliz.
But Cavallo’s defeat in that year soon saw Alberto Fernández switching his political loyalties yet again – he was one of the five founding members of the Calafate Group backing the presidential ambitions of Santa Cruz Peronist Governor Néstor Kirchner, ambitions crowned with success in the 2003 election when Fernández was campaign manager From campaign manager to Cabinet chief seemed a logical enough progression and Fernández served in that capacity throughout Néstor Kirchner’s term before being inherited by his brand-new running-mate.
But Fernández lasted less than a year as Cabinet chief under the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner presidency (2007- 15), resigning in disagreement over the controversial farm export duties of 2008.
In the following years he was increasingly critical of his former boss, often drawing a contrast between “good” Kirchnerism, as practised by Néstor Kirchner (especially after the latter’s death in 2010), and the “bad” Kirchnerism of his widow.
This estrangement led him to join the Renewal Front of dissident Peronist Sergio Massa (his successor as Cristina’s Cabinet chief, also lasting less than a year) in 2013, acting as the campaign manager of Massa’s 2015 presidential campaign. In the 2017 midterms he performed similar services for Justicialist senatorial candidate Florencio Randazzo, always in opposition to his new running-mate.
In her video last weekend, Fernández de Kirchner admitted there had been “differences” between them.
The reconciliation only started well into last year and seemed to reach a climax d u r i n g t h i s month’s book launch of Fern á n d e z d e Kirchner’s bestseller Sinceramente, during which the ex-president singled out her new guru (seated in the front row) and credited him with the idea of its authorship.
Until last weekend.
In the video she posted online on Saturday, the former president said she had “asked Alberto Fernández to head the ticket that we will integrate together,” adding that “personal expectation or ambition must be subordinated to the general interest.”
Now, pollsters are redrawing their surveys to see what impact this latest surprise has on the race for the Casa Rosada.
Some polls had suggested Fernández de Kirchner could defeat Macri in a second round of voting, but it is unclear how those prospects will change now that Fernández has thrown her hat in the ring in a lesser capacity. While many had assumed she would run for the top post, for some analysts her decision to pursue the position of second-in-command reflects possible doubts over whether she is best positioned to challenge Mauricio Macri directly, in light of the corruption trials and allegations piling up against her.
Roberto Bacman, of the Center for Public Opinion Studies, said that the ex-Cabinet chief “has another profile,” which is not “the profile of someone from Cristina’s central core who strictly repeats everything she says.”
The ticket, he said, “totally changes the direction of electoral politics, the electoral hypotheses and the measurements that had been made so far.”
Mariel Fornoni, the director of the political consultancy Manage - m e n t & Fit, said this week that voters who were somewhat apprehensive of the former president could now be more willing to vote for the ticket with Alberto Fernández as the leader.
“It seems to me that all this is aimed at a more moderate voter,” Fornoni said, noting that Fernández was praised by some for his work in government. “Painting him as Nestor [Kirchner]’s chief-of-staff when we left the crisis is associated with having someone with experience.”
If Fernández does win the presidency, there will be no official First Lady – he has never remarried since his divorce from his first marriage (one son) in 2005, with a string of girlfriends ever since, of whom the most politically prominent was ex-senator Vilma Ibarra, the sister of 2000-2006 City Mayor Aníbal Ibarra.
He has just the one son, 24-year-old Estanislao, who became well-known in recent years for his exploits as a drag queen and ‘cosplayer’ known as Dyhzy.
Like the former vice-president Amado Boudou (now jailed for corruption), Fernández has also been known to strum the guitar in public with Lito Nebbia as his idol.