Fernandez takes office as Argentina shifts to the left

Buenos Aires (AFP) –


Argentina's incoming president Alberto Fernandez takes office Tuesday having pledged to put Argentina "back on its feet" but he faces a tough task due to recession, high inflation and rising unemployment and poverty.

Fernandez, a leftist who ousted market-friendly Mauricio Macri in October's elections, will be sworn-in at a ceremony in Congress at 10:30 am (1330 GMT).

The new head of state will host an inauguration lunch for fellow presidents from across Latin America -- including Cuba's Migue Diaz-Canel who arrived here Sunday -- before addressing a crowd at the Plaza de Mayo in the evening.

Chile's President Sebastian Pinera will attend the festivities in Buenos Aires -- his first foreign trip since the beginning of his country's social crisis -- as will Paraguay's Mario Abdo Benitez and Uruguay's Tabare Vazquez.

A notable absentee will be President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. Argentina's ideological swing has roiled relations between the two countries and the far-right Bolsonaro at first declined to send a cabinet minister to represent him.

Bolsonaro said ahead of Fernandez's election victory that his government would turn Argentina into the new Venezuela, with Brazil likely to face a flood of Argentine refugees.

Fernandez's was among the loudest voices to call for the release of leftist icon and Bolsonaro adversary Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva from jail.

Bolsonaro's government finally announced Monday that Brazil would be represented by Vice-President Hamilton Mourao.

- Backroom strategist -

Moderate and pragmatic, Fernandez has never served in elected office but brings years of backroom strategizing, as a former top aide to late President Nestor Kirchner from 2003-2007, and briefly, for his wife Cristina Kirchner when she succeeded him.

After joining forces with Cristina Kirchner to unite a fragmented camp and win October's elections, his main challenge will be to lead the resulting coalition government, according to analyst Enrique Zuleta.

"Fernandez is a very experienced person. He's assured on international issues and debt issues. He's very prepared," Zuleta told AFP.

"His biggest challenge will be to administer this heterogeneous coalition."

Fernandez will rely heavily on his pick as economy minister. Martin Guzman, 37, will have the task of negotiating with the International Monetary Fund and other international creditors on restructuring Argentina's massive debt.

Guzman, an academic at Columbia University in the United States, has been critical of austerity policies as a solution to debt crises and his appointment signals a sharp shift from Macri's austerity drive.

The first problem Fernandez faces is rescheduling Argentina's $44 billion debt repayment to the IMF.

Argentina's total external debt amounts to more than $315 billion, about 100 percent of GDP.

"We are already working with the IMF. It's work that must be done quietly, so Argentines can rest assured that we have been dealing with the issue for weeks," Fernandez said at the weekend.

"We have opened a negotiation process, we are satisfied with how it's going."

- Monetary controls -

Economist Hector Rubini of the University of Salvador said the government is likely to maintain the strict exchange controls put in place by the Macri government in October, at least initially.

He said a new budget law will likely be approved to reallocate funds to fight poverty, an issue that Fernandez said was "a moral imperative."

Fernandez has also pledged to move to legalize abortion, a bitterly divisive issue in Roman Catholic Argentina, saying last month he would send a bill to Congress as soon as possible.

The leader inherits a dismal economy that will shrink 3.1 percent this year, with inflation running at 55 percent, poverty near 40 percent, and unemployment at over 10 percent.

Despite a bleak economic outlook, Fernandez is likely to be able to count on a period of social peace from the powerful unions, and will have Congress and debt timetables on his side.

"He has time, he has Congress, he has ideas. If he plays his cards right he can create a great presidency," Zuleta said.