This piece has been updated
As Argentina’s economy continues to disappoint, the once unthinkable is becoming possible: Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the divisive former president who led the country from 2007 to 2015, could return to the presidency.
Rising inflation and sour relations with investors marked Kirchner’s final years as president, and a growing list of corruption indictments from her time in office haven’t helped her public image. But Kirchner remains popular with much of the electorate, and polls give her a real chance of winning if she decides to run.
So will Kirchner throw her hat in the ring? This and two other questions loom over Argentine politicians, voters and investors as the first round of voting approaches on Oct. 27.
Is She Going to Run?
“Nobody knows,” Sergio Berensztein, a veteran pollster and analyst, told AQ. “She’ll keep this ambiguity for some time, evaluating the pros and cons of running.”
Kirchner has so far kept quiet about her plans, but there are some recent signs that she’s trying to energize her supporters.
On March 14, Kirchner shared a passionate, campaign-style video on Twitter about her 29-year-old daughter Florencia, who is in Cuba for treatment for a number of health problems. In the video, Kirchner blamed “fierce persecution” for aggravating her daughter’s condition, a reference to ongoing investigations into Florencia’s alleged involvement in a money laundering scheme in which Kirchner and her son are also implicated.
Other observers point out that Argentina’s disappointing economic performance under President Mauricio Macri has provided a perfect script for Kirchner’s return.
“The idea that she would just give up is unbelievable. I can’t see that happening given the force of her character,” said Nicolás Saldías, a researcher for the Wilson Center’s Argentina Project.
Still, in a recent D’Alessio/Berensztein poll, only a third of respondents thought she would be a candidate; 39 percent said they weren’t sure.
And Kirchner could decide that supporting a fellow Peronist with a good shot at beating Macri – and who could offer her protection – would be a wiser political move than running herself.
“There are some decisions that are only for Cristina to make, which surprise even her close collaborators,” Hugo Alconada Mon, the investigations editor at La Nación, told AQ. “When I speak to people within her inner circle, including ex-ministers, they give mixed responses.”
Could She Win?
According to polls, the former president has a hold on about a third of Argentine voters – short of the threshold required for winning in October’s first round but enough to get her into the runoff. If she makes it there against Macri, most polls put them neck and neck. A Synopsis poll conducted the first week of April had Kirchner beating Macri by less than two points. And if Argentina’s economy continues to falter, her odds may improve.
In fact, the recession has affected potential Kirchner voters more acutely than most. A report published last week by the Catholic University of Argentina shows that multidimensional poverty increased from 26.6 percent in 2017 to 31.3 percent in 2018, and grew most significantly in the conurbano of Buenos Aires and the surrounding metropolitan area, where Kirchner’s base is strongest.
“This suggests that any goodwill that Macri might have had by improving infrastructure investment or anything of that nature has basically dissipated,” Saldías told AQ. “Cristina has a fighting chance now that she probably didn’t a year ago.”
Will She Go to Prison?
It happened last year in Brazil: A popular leftist ex-president was sent to jail on a corruption conviction just months before attempting to run for a third term. Could we see a repeat in Argentina?
“(Kirchner) has a better shot at becoming president than ending up like Lula,” Natalia Volosin, an Argentine lawyer, author and corruption expert told AQ.
For starters, possible conviction is a long way off. Kirchner’s first trial, in a case tied to irregular public works contracts before and during her presidency, has been delayed repeatedly and isn’t scheduled to begin until May. Over a hundred witnesses are expected to be called to testify.
“I’m almost certain she will be convicted, but that doesn’t mean she’ll go to jail,” Volosin told AQ.
A judge has and might again call for Kirchner’s pre-trial detention, citing a flight risk. But the former president can’t currently be arrested, having won a senate seat – and congressional immunity – in 2017. The Senate could strip her of this immunity with a two-thirds vote, but her fellow Peronists in Congress have always said they won’t do so without a firm conviction. That means any conviction would need to be upheld by both Argentina’s highest criminal court and its Supreme Court.
Unless Kirchner is convicted and all her appeals are exhausted, there is nothing to stop her from running for president. If she wins, her chances of going to jail would decrease significantly. There is an unwritten tradition in Argentina that allows presidents to wait until after their terms to be judged for alleged crimes while in office, said Alconada.
“It’s not formal, but it happens,” he told AQ.
Even after leaving office, courts in Argentina have a history of throwing out cases if a significant amount of time has passed. That happened in the case of former President Carlos Menem, who an appeals court absolved of a conviction for illegal arms sales in the 1990s because more than two decades had gone by. Even if Kirchner loses, precedents like this, and other forms of judicial and political maneuvering, could ultimately help her avoid jail time.
That doesn’t mean Kirchner is out of the woods. If she runs for and loses the presidency, or doesn’t run and her allies lose badly, she could also lose much of her political influence. A conviction could then impel Congress to strip her of her immunity.
“Can that scenario happen? Yes,” said Alconada. “Is it probable? That’s another question.”
This piece was updated to reflect new polling.
O’Boyle is a senior editor at AQ. Follow him on Twitter at @BrenOBoyle