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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 25-05-2019 10:22

Let the play begin

To judge by his behaviour ever since he decided to make politics his business, Alberto Fernández is about as trustworthy as a rattlesnake.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner sent shockwaves through the Argentine political establishment, the heterogenous assortment of allegedly heavy hitters Mauricio Macri calls the “red circle,” when she informed the country last weekend that, if the electorate agreed, Alberto Fernández would be the next president, while she would content herself with the vice-presidency, a humble post which is usually given to housetrained worthies who are unlikely to cause problems for the man or woman in the top spot.

As is habitual with her, she reached her decision without consulting anybody apart, perhaps, from her son Máximo. And Alberto? No doubt he had to agree to do her bidding, but that will have been about all that was required of him.

For days, people interested in politics tried to work out what made Cristina pretend she was willing to play second fiddle to a man who, before he returned to the fold, had criticised her with unusual harshness. For some, she had just made it clear that she was more interested in staying out of jail by holding onto the privileges politicians have awarded themselves than in trying yet again to govern a country in which expectations have at best a tangential relationship with genuine possibilities. In any event, she clearly believes that Alberto – who days before had warned people in the Judiciary they had better be careful not to do, say or write anything stupid because he had his eye on them – will give her all the protection she needs and will put in their place uppity prosecutors and judges who have the strange idea that nobody should be above the law, not even a former president who is still very popular in the dingier parts of Greater Buenos Aires province where the votes are.

Others, who say they believe Cristina feels she has to regain power because she thinks the country would be lost without her telling it what to do, saw in the decision a crafty manoeuvre designed to lure Peronist “moderates” – especially that slippery character Sergio Massa – into the Kirchnerite camp in order to give the Fernández-Fernández ticket a chance of winning the fast-approaching elections in the first round because Cristina knows she would probably be beaten by Macri in a run-off. Alberto has been working on this for several weeks and has reportedly managed to make some provincial governors consider the advantages of moving nearer to the Kirchnerite camp.

But then, as the days passed, attempts to understand what the lady was up to took a more sceptical turn. Presumably, she chose Alberto because she thought that, in addition to dealing with her many enemies, he would appeal first to her fellow politicians as well as the moneymen in Wall Street, and then, as the campaign advanced, to much of the electorate, as a reasonable bloke who could run things well enough and, in her view at least, could be relied on to remain loyal to his benefactress.

Cristina has never been a good judge of character. Time and time again she has let herself be beguiled by comically unsuitable individuals such as Amado Boudou and Aníbal Fernández. It could well be that she has made an even bigger mistake with Alberto. Until the last vote has been cast, he will have to play the part Cristina has in mind for him. But being the kind of person he is, once in office he would surely be tempted to use the considerable power that comes with the job to destroy her. After, all, no self-respecting male Argentine politician can be expected to put up with a person like Cristina for a minute longer than he absolutely has to. What is more, to judge by his behaviour ever since he decided to make politics his business, Alberto is about as trustworthy as a rattlesnake.

Should all go as planned, the stage will be set for a Shakespearean drama in which ambition, the feeling that enemies about to strike are lurking in every corner and the proximity of a strongminded woman lead the protagonist to his ruin. Meanwhile, until election day, both will have to watch their every step. If the word gets round that Alberto cares more for his own future than for that of his supposedly junior partner, Cristina and her devotees will have little choice but to try and make him fall back into line. But if he gives the impression that he is happy to be the former president’s pawn, voters could start treating him with contempt. Either way, he would be in deep trouble.

As well as having to cohabit with a famously demanding woman who has always treated her servants with icy disdain, Alberto will have to convince the Kirchnerites that he shares their views about how to handle an economy that is permanently on the verge of falling over a cliff. If what he has said and done in the past is anything to go by, he thinks their theories are a load of nonsense. Given the chance, he would take the country on a path much like the one Macri put it on, as indeed would more level-headed Peronists such as Miguel Ángel Pichetto and Juan Manuel Urtubey. He would certainly be averse to having historians remember him as the president who destroyed Argentina much as the Chavistas destroyed Venezuela.

Just how the many Kirchnerites who dream of continuing the highly successful war against “capital” their fellow Peronists have been waging for over 70 years would react to the rightward lurch a President Alberto would probably attempt, if only because there is little money in the national kitty, is hard to predict. Perhaps some would go along with him if Cristina says that, given the unhappy circumstances brought about by that wicked man Macri, for a while they will have to swallow some economic orthodoxy. But many have already begun to accuse him of getting ready to hand the country to the neoliberales they say are determined to make Argentina a vassal state under the thumb of the International Monetary Fund.

Should those who think this way complain loudly enough, Cristina would have to choose between replacing Alberto with someone more reliable before June 22, when all candidates for elective posts must have been formally registered, go for the presidency herself, or leave her fate in the hands of a notoriously shifty individual, one who one day could betray her.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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