Moderate Peronist Fernandez closes in on Argentine presidency

Buenos Aires (AFP) –


Alberto Fernandez has been a discreet backroom operator throughout a long career in Argentine politics, but all that could change after Sunday's elections.

Little known outside Buenos Aires politics, the 60-year-old law professor and Bob Dylan fan burst onto the international stage by trouncing President Mauricio Macri in August primaries that were seen as a dress rehearsal for the presidential election.

Opinion polls suggest a repeat performance on Sunday.

Fernandez's biggest job in politics to date came when he was chief of staff in Nestor Kirchner's administration, and later in that of his wife, Cristina Kirchner.

He left abrubtly in the first year of Cristina's presidency, shortly after she tried to introduce an export tax on grain producers that ignited a wave of strikes and farmer protests in 2008.

The split, after which he became one of her fiercest critics, is offered as evidence by Fernandez's friends and supporters that he will be his own man in the presidency and not a puppet of Cristina.

"Fernandez stopped Cristina Kirchner in 2008 and broke with her. She couldn't control him then, much less so now," from her office in the vice-presidency if they win Sunday, said political analyst Raul Aragon.

- 'Liberal, progressive, Peronist' -

Lawmaker Daniel Filmus, education minister in Nestor Kirchner's 2003-07 government, sees Fernandez as a highly intelligent operator "with whom you can discuss and exchange on a great many subjects."

A man "who under differing circumstances proved that he could work in tandem with people of various profiles on medium- and long-term policies."

Critics see him as a political chameleon, frequenting both the ultra-liberal edges of Peronism and the milieu of left-wing populists like Kirchner.

Fernandez sees himself as a "leftist liberal, a progressive liberal."

"I believe in individual freedoms and I believe that the state must be present when the markets demand it," he said in an interview. "I am a Peronist. I am growing the branches of progressive Peronist liberalism."

After his crushing defeat of Macri, Fernandez took time out to visit several leftist Latin American leaders, including Brazil's former leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in prison, Uruguay's ex-president Jose "Pepe" Mujica and Bolivia's Evo Morales.

- Reassuring markets -

In the final weeks of the campaign, Fernandez has strived to reassure the markets, which have been spooked by the possibility of a return to Peronist protectionism represented by Kirchner.

He is a trenchant critic of the International Monetary Fund and the conditions it has imposed on its $57 billion bailout of Argentina, but has dismissed the notion of a default.

Instead analysts say he is likely use his mandate to renegotiate the IMF deal.

At the same time he has tried to calm ordinary Argentines, worried that their savings are under threat. "We will take care of your dollar deposits in the bank. You have no reason to be nervous," he said at a rally last week.

On foreign policy it is clear he does not intend to go with the flow on issues like Venezuela.

He said his presidency would adopt a position similar to that of Mexico and Uruguay, which recognize Nicolas Maduro as president and are in favor of dialogue with the socialist pariah.

Caracas under Maduro is not a dictatorship, he insists, but rather an "authoritarian government."

That runs counter to established policy under Macri, who was quick to recognize Maduro's opposition rival Juan Guaido as interim president, aligning Argentina with around 50 other countries, including the United States and most of Latin America.

- Private Life -

Music plays a big part in Fernandez's life, to the extent that the Dylan fan named his fluffy brown-and-white collie after the singer-songwriter. "Dylan" has been somewhat less discreet than his master, having accounts on Twitter and Instagram.

Fernandez has maintained a 30-year career as a law professor at Buenos Aires University until recently.

Divorced, he has a 24-year-old son from his marriage which ended in 2005. His son, Estanislao Fernandez, is a drag queen.

Fernandez lives with partner Fabiola Yanez, a journalist and actress, in swanky Puerto Madero.

He plays the guitar, likes Argentine rock and has been known to compose love songs and poetry. Like any Argentine, he's a soccer fan, supporting Argentinos Juniors, the club that spawned Diego Maradona.