Alberto Fernández’s insistence on driving himself to his inauguration as Argentina’s new president last Tuesday, flashing the victory sign to jubilant supporters, seemed designed to show that he was in control.
But investors fear Argentina is now governed by what some pundits describe as a “vice-presidential” system, given the unprecedented influence of his deputy Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
After inviting her former cabinet chief to run for president in her place, the fiery populist who ruled Argentina from 2007 to 2015 took a back seat for much of the election campaign to allow the more moderate Mr Fernández to win over centrist voters. But it is becoming increasingly clear that she will play a decisive role in the incoming Peronist government.
“The idea that she would not intervene was ridiculous from the start,” said Marcos Novaro, a political analyst in Buenos Aires. He suggested that the Peronist party found it convenient to spread the idea that her main interest in returning to government was to defend herself from a barrage of corruption charges, and that she would only occupy a symbolic role in the new administration. Vice-presidents in Argentina traditionally enjoy little real power.
But Ms Fernández will not just wield authority in Congress, where the vice-president is constitutionally in charge and where she has significant support.She has also succeeded in putting loyalists into key positions, including her son Máximo Kirchner as head of the Peronist bloc of the lower house.
“Kirchneristas” have secured key roles in executive positions and government agencies. Eduardo “Wado” de Pedro, a leader of the militant youth group La Cámpora, has become interior minister, while Ms Fernández’s longtime ally Carlos Zannini, known as “El Chino” because of his admiration for China’s Mao Zedong, has been appointed attorney-general.
“It’s political pragmatism. Alberto needs Cristina to be invested in the cabinet to avoid it being too weak. It’s the smartest thing to do,” said Juan Cruz Díaz, managing director at Cefeidas Group, a risk consultancy in Buenos Aires.
Mr Novaro likens the move to a “bear hug”. Mr Fernández “knows that he has no political space to challenge Cristina and needs her as close as possible”, he said. “He is trying to embrace her so that she shares in the costs of decisions . . . and doesn’t leave him alone in the difficult moments.”
Analysts point out that this is the first time in decades that such a broad Peronist coalition has won power, so it is reasonable to expect Ms Fernández’s followers, who account for at least two-thirds of the votes won by the leftist coalition, to be represented in government.
“There are no precedents for this situation,” said María Esperanza Casullo, a political scientist at the National University of Río Negro, noting that no former Peronist president had maintained as much popular support as Ms Fernández, or had subsequently become vice-president.
The fact that Argentina’s system gives substantial power to the president, and that Peronism is a top-down political organisation, suggests that Mr Fernández will have an opportunity to build his own power base. But Ms Casullo thinks it is “highly improbable” that there will be major conflict between the president and his deputy.
“It doesn’t matter if they don’t get on well or if they don’t like each other,” she said. “It is very clear that the destruction of one means the destruction of the other. If things are going badly for one of them, they are going badly for the other too.”
Such reasoning has failed to prevent speculation that Mr Fernández is receiving instructions from his former boss, who he fell out with less than a year into her first government over her handling of a farmers’ strike.
Many observers seized on his decision to visit Ms Fernández at her homein Buenos Aires last month — allegedly to seek her approval for his cabinet picks — instead of his deputy coming to him, following her return from a long stay in Cuba.
Others noted her self assurance during Mr Fernández’s inauguration on Tuesday, when she coldly snubbed outgoing president Mauricio Macri as he formally handed over power, even refusing to sign official documents with the same pen.
“She has already defined the political field of play for Alberto,” said Mr Novaro, referring to her successful move to unify the Peronist blocs in a Congress that she will control. “It’s a sign that she is going to lead Peronism.”
Whatever the case, Argentine politics will be defined by the relationship between the Fernández duo, at least until the 2021 midterm elections. The president’s success and power will be determined by whether he can consolidate the electoral coalition into a governing coalition, said Mr Díaz.
“There’s no doubt that Cristina will remain active, even if she may step back from day-to-day decisions,” he said. “But she will remain [an influential] political leader until the day she dies.”