Moderate leftist Fernandez - the man to unite Argentina?

Buenos Aires (AFP) –


Alberto Fernandez had long been a discreet backroom operator throughout his career in Argentine politics, but having been sworn in as president on Tuesday he announced big plans to rid the country of its political polarization.

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

Two months later he repeated the trick in elections, winning outright in the first round.

After he was sworn in on Tuesday, he twice gave Macri a lingering hug before promising a "new, fraternal and caring" Argentina and vowing to "overcome the rancor and hate" of polarization.

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

He left abruptly in the first year of Cristina Kirchner'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 and not a puppet of the former president, who is now his vice-president.

"Fernandez stopped Cristina Kirchner in 2008 and broke with her. She couldn't control him then, much less so now," said political analyst Raul Aragon.

Even so, "managing relations" with Kirchner will be "challenging," according to analysts Eurasia Group.

"Fernandez will try to marginalize her. Cristina shaped the cabinet and will want to have a say in the direction of policy and key decisions."

- '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."

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

Critics see Fernandez 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."

- Reassuring markets -

In the final weeks of his campaign, Fernandez 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 to use his mandate to renegotiate the IMF deal.

At his inauguration speech, Fernandez insisted Argentina "wants to pay" its $315 billion external debt, which is around 100 percent of gross domestic product, but that it doesn't have "the means to do so."

The IMF loan was deeply unpopular in Argentina, and Fernandez has tried to calm ordinary citizens, 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 an October rally.

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

He has said his presidency will 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 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 football fan, supporting Argentinos Juniors, the club that spawned superstar Diego Maradona.