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ARGENTINA | 10-12-2019 18:02

Is Alberto Fernández the man to unite Argentina?

New president has long been a discreet backroom operator. But on Tuesday he announced big plans to rid the country of its political polarisation.

Alberto Fernández had long been a discreet backroom operator throughout his career in Argentine politics, but having been sworn in as president on Tuesday he announced big plans to rid the country of its political polarisation.

Little known to most outside Buenos Aires politics before serving as Cabinet chief, the 60-year-old law professor and Bob Dylan fan first burst onto the international stage by trouncing outgoing president Mauricio Macri in August PASO primaries that were seen as a dress rehearsal for the presidential election.

Two months later he repeated the trick in elections, winning outright in the first round.

After he was sworn in on Tuesday, he twice gave Macri a lingering hug before promising a "new, fraternal and caring" Argentina and vowing to "overcome the rancour and hate" of polarisation.

Fernández's biggest job in politics to date came when he was Cabinet chief in the administration of the late Néstor Kirchner, and later in that of his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. 

He left abruptly in the first year of Fernández de Kirchner's presidency, shortly after she tried to introduce an export tax on grain producers that ignited a wave of strikes and farmer protests in 2008.

The split, after which he became one of her fiercest critics, is offered as evidence by Fernández's friends and supporters that he will be his own man and not a puppet of the former president, who is now his vice-president.

"Fernández stopped Cristina Kirchner in 2008 and broke with her. She couldn't control him then, much less so now," said political analyst Raul Aragon.

Even so, "managing relations" with Kirchner will be "challenging," according to analysts Eurasia Group.

"Fernández will try to marginalise her. Cristina shaped the Cabinet and will want to have a say in the direction of policy and key decisions." 

Critics, meanwhile, see Fernández as a political chameleon, frequenting both the ultra-liberal edges of Peronism and the milieu of left-wing populists like Kirchner.

Fernández sees himself as a "leftist liberal, a progressive liberal."

"I believe in individual freedoms and I believe that the state must be present when the markets demand it," he said in an interview. "I am a Peronist. I am growing the branches of progressive Peronist liberalism."

Reassuring markets

In the final weeks of his campaign, Fernández strived to reassure the markets, which have been spooked by the possibility of a return to Peronist protectionism represented by Kirchner.

He is a trenchant critic of the International Monetary Fund and the conditions it has imposed on its US$57-billion bailout of Argentina, but has dismissed the notion of a default.

Instead analysts say he is likely to use his mandate to renegotiate the IMF deal.

At his inauguration speech, Fernández insisted Argentina "wants to pay" its US$315-billion external debt, which is around 100 percent of gross domestic product, but that it doesn't have "the means to do so."

The IMF loan was deeply unpopular in Argentina, and Fernández has tried to calm ordinary citizens, worried that their savings are under threat. 

"We will take care of your dollar deposits in the bank. You have no reason to be nervous," he said at an October rally.

On foreign policy it is clear that Fernández does not intend to go with the leftist flow on issues like Venezuela.

He has said his presidency will adopt a position similar to that of Mexico and Uruguay, which recognises Nicolas Maduro as president and are in favour of dialogue with the socialist pariah.

Caracas under Maduro is not a dictatorship, he insists, but rather an "authoritarian government."

That runs counter to established policy under Macri, who was quick to recognise Maduro's opposition rival Juan Guaido as interim president, aligning Argentina with around 50 other countries, including the United States and most of Latin America.

Private life 

Music plays a big part in Fernández's life, to the extent that the Dylan fan named his fluffy brown-and-white collie after the singer-songwriter. "Dylan" has been somewhat less discreet than his master, having accounts on Twitter and Instagram.

Fernández maintained a 30-year career as a law professor at Buenos Aires University until recently.

Divorced, he has a 24-year-old son from his marriage which ended in 2005. His son, Estanislao Fernández, is a drag queen. 

Fernández lives with partner Fabiola Yáñez, a journalist and actress, in swanky Puerto Madero.

He plays the guitar, likes Argentine rock and has been known to compose love songs and poetry. Like any Argentine, he's a football fan, supporting Argentinos Juniors, the club that spawned superstar Diego Maradona.

– TIMES/AFP

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