Why did Cristina Fernández de Kirchner decide to step aside, appointing her former Cabinet Chief Alberto Fernández as her presidential candidate to face Mauricio Macri in October? Was it a move of brilliant political strategy, outmanoeuvring her opponents by capturing the nation’s attention? Was she faster than Mauricio Macri and the so-called “Rational Peronists” who, under the banner of Alternativa Federal, are still trying to decide who will fill the respective parties’ tickets? Could it have been an act of desperation as the first of several trials against the former president got underway, especially after having failed to deactivate it with the help of her former Supreme Court allies? Or maybe it is an acknowledgement that despite Macri’s horrible approval ratings, her own disapproval figures are such that she cannot win?
Only when the election has come and gone will we be able to truly assess whether this outsize risk was brilliant, utter recklessness or plain stupidity. The same goes for President Macri’s intention to seek re-election, rather than stepping aside and allowing the strongest of Cambiemos’ candidates, such as Buenos Aires Province Governor María Eugenia Vidal, to partner up with a coalition member or even a Peronist in order to beat the Fernández-Fernández ticket. If Alberto’s surprise appearance is any evidence, the intensity of Argentine politics – coupled with the high level of undecided voters – will lead to a few other surprises in the coming days, weeks, and months. Players like Renewal Front leader Sergio Massa, the Radical Civic Union (UCR), and Roberto Lavagna will also keep us on our toes.
As last week was coming to an end, the country had been slapped in the face by the Supreme Court’s decision to request the docket for the upcoming trial against Fernández de Kirchner, leading to speculation that its potential delay was politically motivated. Protests ensued across Buenos Aires’ more affluent neighbourhoods. Forced to backtrack, the Supreme Court justices argued it was a normal, procedural request and that the trial should follow its scheduled timetable. Close to the leading Cambiemos coalition many sensed a scent that reminded them of the golden years of Kirchnerism: Alberto Fernández.
In a televised interview in Corea del Centro show on Net TV, the mustachioed Fernández told journalists María O’Donnell and Ernesto Tenembaum that CFK’s return to power would include an investigation into the Judiciary, one focused on those who pressed charges against her. That was probably before he even knew he would be leading the ticket. Come early Saturday morning, Cristina announced in a video with hastily recorded audio quality that Alberto would lead the ticket. It was at the heart of everything anyone spoke about for the next seven days.
Alberto can be useful for Cristina in several ways. A skilled politician and expert in the Machiavellian arts of always landing on his feet, Alberto has a close relationship with Massa, to the point where he ran his 2015 presidential campaign. Convincing the Renewal Front leader to jump ship would result in the capsizing of Alternativa Federal and possibly give the Fernández-Fernández ticket enough votes to fathom a victory in October. No run-off, that is.
Massa now finds himself in a tough spot. Having campaigned for three years — more if we add the 2015 elections — as an alternative to both Macri and Cristina, now he is being forced to choose between what looks like a winning side and a dishevelled Peronist line-up that is haemorrhaging support daily. While an electoral alliance with Cristina would look and feel vulgar, Alberto allows him the opportunity of much less toxic photo op.
That’s the same reason why several former Kirchnerites that timidly supported Alternativa Federal have already offered an olive branch to the Fernández-Fernández ticket. Governors including Rosana Bertone of Tierra del Fuego, Gerardo Zamora of Santiago del Estero, Domingo Peppo of Chaco, Juan Manzur of Tucumán, Lucía Corpacci of Catamarca, Sergio Casas of La Rioja, and (of course) Alicia Kirchner of Santa Cruz have expressed their support. Not only is it more enjoyable to negotiate with Alberto, it is also more palatable toward one’s constituency in the aftermath of 12 years of Kirchnerism and three-and-a-half of Macrismo.
Another one of Alberto’s strengths is called Clarín. The former Cabinet Chief had a swell relationship with most of the media during his tenure, which was before major outlets began investigating the Kirchners’ corrupt practices (with the notable exception of Editorial Perfil SA). Once out of the public service, he was even accused by hardcore Kirchnerites of defending Grupo Clarín CEO Héctor Magnetto’s interests. Cristina’s all-out war with Clarín occurred in the After-Alberto era. Since then, the firm has won the business war, solidifying its dominant position and getting the Macri administration to allow the fusion of Personal into Fibertel-Cablevisión, which, along with Telecom, has created the country’s largest telecommunications player. To a certain extent, Cristina’s crusade helped unmask the monster, making Clarín’s business intentions clear to society, which has weakaned the media side of the business, meaning a cultural battle of sorts was won by the Kirchnerites. Yet, Alberto’s candidacy could lead to a truce.
So far this campaign, Cristina has kept true to her strategy of remaining silent. Her campaign acts include the narration of two videos (one about her daughter Florencia, another announcing Alberto’s candidacy), and her appearance at the Buenos Aires International Book Fair. Cristina knows that her public appearances repel undecided voters, while attracting the faithful (just watch today’s campaign rally). That is why she will most probably focus her campaigning in Buenos Aires Province, otherwise known as “the mother of all battles.” If the Ks manage to seize the Governorship from wunderkind Vidal, Macri is almost surely toast.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether Alberto’s lead role, rather than Cristina’s, had a positive or a negative impact. Initial surveys returned mixed results, while financial markets remained relatively calm. Even if the effect was neutral, it should be read as a victory for CFK’s camp.
Regardless, it appears forced. As Macri’s star political advisor Jaime Durán Barba noted, it will work against Fernández de Kirchner’s aspirations, “softening the floor and lowering the ceiling” in electoral terms. Cristina can count on one thing, though: whatever Macri does, he’s currently stuck hovering around the worst figures of his presidency.