'Alberto is the president of all Argentines'
The Associated Press
Luis Andres Henao and Debora Rey
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentine former President Cristina Fernández, the divisive Peronist leader both loathed and loved in this economically troubled South American country, is once again in a top position of power, a development that rattled investors Monday even as financial experts said it was unlikely the country would fully return to Fernández's populist policies.
Thousands of jubilant supporters of Fernández's running mate and new boss, incoming President Alberto Fernández, celebrated the center-left victory in Sunday's election after conservative incumbent President Mauricio Macri conceded defeat.
"We're coming back! We're coming back!" they chanted, waving sky-blue and white Argentine flags.
Alberto Fernández, who is no relation to the former president, had 48.1 percent of the votes compared to 40.4 percent for Macri, with almost 97 percent percent of the votes counted, election officials said. He needed 45 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.
Alberto Fernández served as chief of staff from 2003 to 2007 for Cristina Fernández's late husband and predecessor as president, Nestor Kirchner. He remained in the position during part of Cristina Fernández's term as president but left after a conflict with farmers in 2008.
For many voters, placing the former aide at the top of the ticket made it more palatable. Cristina Fernández, who represents the more radical wing of the Peronist party, is both wildly popular among many and widely despised. She also faces a string of corruption investigations, although she denies any wrongdoing.
"Today, Alberto is the president of all Argentines," Cristina Fernández told supporters, some of whom brandished tattoos with her and Kirchner's images.
Some worried that the Peronist victory would scare off investors and revive the interventionist policies blamed for squeezing both exports and imports, as well as a busy black market during Cristina Fernández's rule from 2007 to 2015. Argentina's inflation rate already is one of the highest in the world, nearly one-third of Argentines are poor and its currency has continued to plunge under Macri, who came into power in 2015 with promises to boost South America's second-largest economy and one of the world's top grain suppliers.
Ordinary Argentines are haunted by the country's worst economic collapse, in 2001-2002, when banks froze deposits, the local currency lost about 70 percent of its value and 1 in 5 people were unemployed. To protect themselves, many stashed dollars in vaults or under the mattress.
"The last two years have been brutal in Argentina," said Benjamin Gedan, an Argentina expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Voters have suffered a painful recession, unimaginably high inflation and a debt crisis. No incumbent could survive in these conditions."
When Alberto Fernández topped party primaries in August, stocks plummeted and the peso depreciated on investor fears of a return to the populist economic policies of Cristina Fernández. Argentina Central Bank president Guido Sandleris said that since then, Argentina has spent about $22 billion to guard the peso. He also promised Monday to protect the bank's foreign reserves. And immediately after Sunday's election results came in, the Central Bank announced it would sharply limit the amount of dollars that people can buy: to $200 a month from a previous $10,000 a month, until December.
Although the peso opened stable Monday at about 65 per dollar, some stocks fell in New York, while others remained stable or climbed slightly. Shares of state-owned YPF oil company dropped 2.50%, while Grupo Supervielle fell 2.9 percent and Pampa Energia was up 1.3 percent.
Markets remained fairly steady Monday because investors had enough time to factor in a Fernandez victory, pulling their dollars out of Argentina ahead of time, said Buenos Aires-based economic analyst, Enrique Dentrice.
The investors "already took all the funds that they had to take" so the dollars that are left "is what Argentines have," Dentrice said.
Still, economic fears have not disappeared. Alberto Fernández is "an untested leader" whose proposed solutions to Argentina's ruinous economy and unfavorable international conditions remain a mystery, Gedan said.
Cristina Fernández and Nestor Kirchner dominated Argentina's political scene for 12 years. Many credit them for restoring its sense of pride and sovereignty after the economic crisis of 2001-2002 by negotiating or paying off most of Argentina's defaulted debt. They also kept energy prices down, nationalized the pension system, and retook control of the national airline and oil company. But they were also criticized for worsening the economic woes and accused of corruption.
"The crucial question is what the dynamic will be between the pragmatic president and more ideological and polarizing vice president," said Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. Shifter said Cristina Fernández has hard-core support of about 30 percent of Argentines. "The nature of that power struggle will determine the direction of Argentina's economic, social and foreign policy in coming years."
Shifter said that despite some fears, a return of the populist policies under Cristina Fernández is highly unlikely.
"Today Argentina simply does not have the economic conditions for unchecked spending," he said. "This will not be a replay of her presidency."
Macri retained wide support among the key farming sector in one of the world's top suppliers of grains. But overall frustration over the economy eroded the popularity of the pro-business former mayor of Buenos Aires and ex-president of the popular Boca Juniors soccer club. On the election trail, Fernández criticized Macri's decision to seek a record $56 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund, an institution many Argentines blame for creating the conditions that led to the country's worst economic meltdown in 2001.
Macri on Monday met Fernández, who left the presidential palace smiling and doing the V-for victory sign.
Associated Press journalists Paul Byrne, Almudena Calatrava and Natacha Pisarenko in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Hernán Alvarez in Rosario, Argentina, and Paul Harloff in New York, contributed to this report.