During two decades at the core of Argentine politics, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has drawn adoration and hatred in equal measure, and even a fraud conviction is unlikely to push her out of the corridors of power anytime soon.
Despite her conviction Tuesday on corruption charges – which landed her a six-year jail term and a lifetime ban on holding public office – she has congressional immunity and appeals could tie the sentence up in court for years.
However, Fernández de Kirchner has vowed she will not seek any public office in 2023 general elections, placing a giant question mark over her future in politics and whether she will spend any time in jail.
Fernández de Kirchner, who can be as combative and sarcastic as she can be charming and astute, considers herself a victim of a political witch hunt by her enemies.
"This court has been a true firing squad," the auburn-haired politician told the court last week, accusing prosecutors of having "dedicated themselves to disrespecting and insulting me."
The trial unfolded over three years to a backdrop of increasing political polarisation and a deteriorating economy in a nation weary of its seemingly endless debt crisis and annual inflation which could reach 100 percent by the end of 2022.
While her political star has faded in recent years, Fernández de Kirchner still commands significant support among followers of the centre-left Peronist movement, and it is unclear how they will react to the news of her conviction and sentence.
She was found guilty of fraudulently awarding public works contracts in her stronghold province in Patagonia as president between 2007 and 2015
When prosecutors announced they were seeking a 12-year sentence against her in late August, her backers flooded into the streets outside her nondescript apartment building in the swish Recoleta neighbourhood of the capital, holding vigils for several days.
During one of these protests on September 1, a man shoved a revolver in her face and pulled the trigger – but the gun did not fire.
Fernández de Kirchner was born in 1953 in the small town of Tolosa, just outside the capital Buenos Aires.
The daughter of a bus driver and a housewife, she has often played up her lower middle class roots, even though she does not hide her love for luxury brands and travel.
She came to prominence as part of the ultimate political power couple, with she and her late husband Néstor Kirchner serving a collective 12 years in the Casa Rosada, the pink presidential palace.
To her working-class base, the Kirchners were the saviours after Argentina's 2001 economic meltdown and social unrest that followed the largest debt default in history, standing up for the little guy against bullies both foreign and domestic.
Cristina's two terms in government between 2007-2015, during a commodities boom, were characterised by protectionist policies and populist social welfare programs, rolling out multiple subsidies that raised public spending.
Under her stewardship Argentina became a regional bastion of LGBTQ rights, allowing gay marriage in 2010 and passing a gender identity law in 2012.
However, her detractors see her as a corrupt, overbearing interventionist who steered the country back towards economic ruin with her debt-fueled spending sprees.
Under the Kirchners, "Argentina grew addicted to fictitious feel-good growth, spending and selling everything it had to keep the positive feelings going," an editorial in the Harvard International Review noted in 2019.
Pulling the strings
Cristina met her husband Néstor when they were young law students passionate about Peronism, with both of them later entering politics.
He became president in 2003, serving one term, before she was elected in 2007 in what was a concerted plan to "ensure over time a virtuous political process of transforming the country," she says in her book. The two were expected to continue their term-for-term tango, but he died of a heart attack in 2010.
Fernández de Kirchner became vice-president to her former Cabinet chief Alberto Fernández in 2019, however the two have engaged in a bitter and public power struggle with the veep often criticising his decisions.
Her resistance to efforts to restructure the country's massive debt with the International Monetary Fund – deeply hated by many Argentines who see it as the villain in their economic woes – has been one of the main points of contention.
by Philippe Bernes-Lasserre, AFP