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ARGENTINA | 29-10-2019 13:08

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner returns to the corridors of power

Former president, sitting senator and vice-president-elect is once again returning to a top position of power, a development that's rattling investors.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is once again in a top position of power, a development that's rattling investors, though experts say it's unlikely that Argentina will reapply the populist economic policies that defined her time as president.

Thousands of jubilant supporters of Fernández's running-mate and new boss, Alberto Fernández, celebrated the nation's return to the centre-left after conservative incumbent President Mauricio Macri conceded defeat in Sunday's election.

"We're coming back! We're coming back!" they chanted, waving sky-blue and white Argentine flags.

The Frente de Todos leader served as Cabinet chief from 2003 to 2007 for the former president's late husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner. He remained in the position during part of Fernández de Kirchner's term as president but left after a conflict with farmers in 2008.

For many voters, placing the former aide at the top of the ticket made it more palatable. The former president, a divisive figure who represents the more radical wing of the Peronist party, is both loathed and loved across the country. She also faces a string of corruption investigations, although she denies any wrongdoing.

"Today, Alberto is the president of all Argentines," Fernández de Kirchner told supporters on Sunday.

Economic fears

Some worried that the Peronist victory would scare off investors and revive the interventionist policies that choked the economy with restrictions on imports, exports and foreign currency exchanges during Fernández de Kirchner's rule from 2007 to 2015.

Argentina's inflation rate already is one of the highest in the world, nearly one-third of the population are poor, and the peso has continued to plunge under Macri, who came into power in 2015 with promises to boost the economy and tamp down price increases.

Ordinary Argentines are haunted by the country's worst economic collapse in 2001-2002, when banks froze deposits, the local currency lost about 70 percent of its value and one in five people were unemployed. To protect themselves, many still stash dollars in vaults or under the mattress.

"The last two years have been brutal in Argentina," said Benjamin Gedan, an Argentina expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Voters have suffered a painful recession, unimaginably high inflation and a debt crisis. No incumbent could survive in these conditions."

When Alberto Fernández topped the PASO primaries in August, stocks plummeted and the peso depreciated on investor fears of a return to populist economic policies.

Central Bank chief Guido Sandleris said that since then, Argentina has spent about US$22 billion to guard the peso. He also promised Monday to protect the bank's foreign reserves. And immediately after Sunday's election results came in, the Central Bank announced it would sharply limit the amount of dollars that people can buy: to US$200 a month from a previous US$10,000 a month, until December.

The peso strengthened slightly to 63 per dollar, and markets remained fairly steady Monday; investors had enough time to factor in a Fernández de Kirchner victory, pulling their dollars out of Argentina ahead of time, said Buenos Aires-based economic analyst, Enrique Dentrice.

The investors "already took all the funds that they had to take" so the dollars that are left "is what Argentines have," Dentrice said.

Dynamic

Still, economic fears have not disappeared. Alberto Fernández is "an untested leader" whose proposed economic solutions remain a mystery, Gedan said.

"The crucial question is what the dynamic will be between the pragmatic president and more ideological and polarising vice-president," said Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. Shifter said Cristina Fernández has hard-core support of about 30% of Argentines. "The nature of that power struggle will determine the direction of Argentina's economic, social and foreign policy in coming years."

Shifter said that despite some fears, a return of the populist policies under Fernández de Kirchner is highly unlikely.

"Today Argentina simply does not have the economic conditions for unchecked spending," he said. "This will not be a replay of her presidency."

The Kirchners dominated Argentina's political scene for 12 years. Many credit them for restoring its sense of pride and sovereignty after the 2001-2002 crisis by negotiating or paying off most of Argentina's defaulted debt.

At "Lo de Nestor's" (or "Nestor's Place") a themed bar celebrating the former first couple, large framed wall photos show them celebrating with big crowds, embracing, and meeting with the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, Bolivian President Evo Morales and other leftist leaders. Wall plaques celebrate the nationalisation of the pension system, main airline and oil company.

"Her return means that Argentina's society ... understood that politics should work in a different way," said bar manager Gabriela Cabanillas.

Insurance worker Edgardo Narbais disagreed.

Cristina's return to power means "less institutions, more harassment, and just using chicanery to build power," Narbais said. "This is a return to the past."

On the election trail, Fernández criticised Macri's decision to seek a record US$56-billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Now, markets will closely monitor the new president's approach to an institution that many Argentines blame for creating the conditions that led to the economic collapse at the beginning of the decade.

"Argentina will be on even more uncertain ground as negotiations with the IMF could go either way," said Monica de Bolle, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

by Luis Andres Henao & Debora Rey, Associated Press

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