August 16, 2019 / 9:34 PM / a month ago

Where's Cristina? Argentina's fiery ex-president stands back as left scents victory

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - When opposition presidential candidate Alberto Fernandez addressed a crowd of supporters after his landslide victory in Argentina’s primary election, there was one notable absence from the stage: former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

FILE PHOTO: Former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner leaves a building after a meeting with presidential candidate Alberto Fernandez, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, August 12, 2019. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

Fernandez de Kirchner, a firebrand leftist who is reviled and revered by Argentines in equal measure, has been largely missing from the campaign trail despite running as the vice-presidential candidate on the opposition ticket.

She has limited any significant public speaking to appearances surrounding the recent release of her memoir. And even on her typically fiery Twitter feed, she has kept things tame.

Political analysts chalked her scarce presence up to strategy, much like her decision to align with moderate Peronist Alberto Fernandez in the first place.

Some analysts have suggested that should the left win back the Casa Rosada presidential palace, Fernandez de Kirchner will be the one calling major policy decisions - and not her more softly spoken former chief of staff.

Regardless of who would really control the reins of power, Cristina’s choice to put Fernandez at the top of the ticket paid off in Sunday’s primary vote with the pair recording a staggering 15-point win over incumbent President Mauricio Macri.

The primary election results suggest that Fernandez could clinch the presidency in the first round on Oct 27.

Now it’s just a matter of not rocking the boat before election day, said Benjamin Gedan, director of the Wilson Center’s Argentina Project in Washington.

“By emerging from hiding, she could alienate many of Alberto Fernandez’s moderate supporters who are fed up with austerity, but have no appetite for a return to Cristina’s brand of populism and bare-knuckled politics,” Gedan said.

Fernandez de Kirchner, who faces multiple corruption allegations dating from her two terms as president from 2007 to 2015, is a fixture in headlines for stirring up political drama and no-holds-barred attacks on opponents.

At the end of July, she set off a social media storm after comparing the levels of hunger in Argentina with those of Venezuela, which is suffering an economic collapse and humanitarian crisis that has prompted millions to flee the country.

‘SPOOKED BY CRISTINA’

Knowing her reputation, it is unlikely she will reappear in the public eye ahead of election day, said Mark P. Jones, director of the Argentina Program for Rice University’s Baker Institute.

“The last thing Alberto Fernandez wants is to allow for Macri to have some type of October surprise because voters get spooked by Cristina.”

Even though an upset looks unlikely, given Alberto Fernandez’s substantial support, there’s no reason for the Peronists to take any chances, Jones said.

Some Fernandez supporters said they saw Cristina’s absence as a smart strategic move for the good of the party.

“I think she is aware of her limitations and her electoral ceiling,” said Buenos Aires resident Mateo Tedesco. “She knows she has a very high negative image, just like Macri. The difference is that she had the political intelligence to step aside and Macri did not.”

The extent of Cristina’s future role as the likely next vice president of Argentina is still a source of speculation. Critics and Macri supporters dismissed Alberto Fernandez as a “puppet” with most unconvinced he would really be in charge, despite Cristina’s new lower profile.

“It will be Cristina’s third term - alliances never work in this country,” said Hernan Ratto, 31, a Macri voter.

But political observers and the markets alike will be watching for clues on whether he really will take a backseat to Cristina post-October.

His cabinet picks, especially for economic jobs like Treasury Minister and Central Bank chief, could provide an initial clue.

“These are going to be critical signals for Alberto Fernandez,” Gedan said. “The cabinet choices are the next opportunity for him to demonstrate independence and a more moderate pragmatic policy approach.”

(In ninth paragraph of the story, Benjamin Gedan officially corrects what he meant to say to “bare-knuckled politics,” from what he did say of “bare bones politics”)

Reporting by Cassandra Garrison; additional reporting by Marina Lammertyn; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Alistair Bell

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