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Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner, facing corruption allegations, mounts unlikely comeback

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, former president of Argentina, from left, Gustavo Menéndez, mayor of Merlo, Argentina, and Alberto Fernández, presidential candidate for the Citizen's Unity Party, arrive on stage during their first campaign event, in May. (Sarah Pabst/Bloomberg)

BUENOS AIRES — When President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner reached her two-term limit in 2015, it felt as if an era had ended in Argentina. Flamboyant and divisive, she had come to epitomize the populist Peronist politics, rooted in economic interventionism and fervent nationalism, that have dominated this country for much of the past 80 years.

Her successor, Mauricio Macri, a staid center-right businessman who carefully rations his public appearances, not only presented the personal antithesis to Kirchner, but he also effectively ran on abolishing her governing model, promising to modernize Argentina’s creaking economy and public institutions with pro-market policies he said would result in “zero poverty.”

But even as Kirchner faces trial on nearly a dozen charges of bribery, embezzlement and money laundering from her time in office, she might be on the brink of an unlikely comeback.

The former president, 66, a member of the Argentine Senate, is running as vice-presidential candidate to Alberto Fernández (no relation), the moderate former chief of staff to her late husband and presidential predecessor Néstor Kirchner, ahead of October’s elections.

Touring the country with her new memoir, “Sincerely,” Kirchner has launched blistering attacks on Macri’s business-friendly agenda.

“I understand less and less those capitalists, who call themselves capitalists but want the people to die of hunger and not to consume or spend,” she said during one recent stop, according to a local television channel.

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Under Argentine election law, a president may serve no more than two consecutive terms but can run again after sitting out a term. Kirchner’s unusual move — reemerging as the running mate rather than the top of the ticket — has been interpreted by some observers as a recognition that although she has a loyal base, she is still deeply disliked by many voters and has a low electoral ceiling.

Polls show the pair in a statistical dead heat with Macri, who is campaigning for reelection, and his running mate Miguel Pichetto, an influential former senator and Peronist known for his racially charged claims that Bolivian and Peruvian migrants are causing a crime wave.

Macri is calling on Argentines to stay the course and not revert to what he describes as irresponsible economic populism. Argentines, he has said, need to “kill off” that part of the national character that “for years believed that it was a smart ploy to go into debt and then afterward blame the person who gave us the money and not pay anyone,” the newspaper Clarín reported.

Both tickets are registering around 40 percent support, making a November runoff highly probable. Should Fernández and Kirchner win, few in Argentina expect the former president to take a back seat in the new government.

What has opened the door for the pair is the Macri administration’s luckless handling of its economic overhaul, propelling Argentina into yet another one of the periodic busts that have plagued the country for more than a century.

Inflation this year is expected to top 40 percent. Unemployment has hit 10 percent, the highest since 2006. Gross domestic product shrank nearly 6 percent in the first quarter. Macri has taken a $57 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, the largest in the organization’s history.

The effect has been crushing, particularly for the poorest.

“Historically, in Argentina, when the economy is this bad, the government is finished,” said Carlos De Angelis, a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires. “But this will be a close race. Most Argentines are disappointed with Macri, but many also believe that these reforms take time. They don’t want a return to the past.”

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That past means a society polarized by Peronism, the ideologically amorphous movement founded by Gen. Juan Perón in the 1940s. To explain his politics, Argentines tell a joke about different world leaders driving a car. Perón, the punchline goes, indicated left — but turned right.

Critics say those divisions were deepened during Kirchner’s presidency from 2007 to 2015. She successfully shepherded Argentina’s long recovery after it defaulted in 2001 on its external debt — the largest in history at the time — and launched anti-poverty programs. She also put games from the country’s top soccer league on public TV in a costly initiative that Macri subsequently scrapped.

She was accused of falsifying inflation figures, forged alliances with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez and Russian President Vladimir Putin and gave Iran significant control of the investigation into the unresolved 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.

Since stepping down, Kirchner has attracted still more controversy, as a raft of criminal investigations against her have advanced.

She is accused of accepting irregular payments from Aerolíneas Argentinas, the state-owned airline, and for thousands of rooms at the Alto Calafate, a hotel she owns in Patagonia. She was also accused of favoring associate Lázaro Báez in lucrative public works contracts.

Kirchner and Báez have denied wrongdoing. As a sitting senator, Kirchner cannot be detained.

Kirchner and her supporters claim the cases are politically motivated. Fernández, the presidential candidate, has insisted that the judges will eventually have to “explain” themselves: “If justice exists, no one is convicting Cristina,” he said.

Pablo Secchi, who heads the Argentine chapter of the anti-corruption group Transparency International, disagreed with that assessment.

“In several of these cases, there appears to be good reason to investigate and see if there was or wasn’t a crime,” he said. “Suspects have lots of guarantees in Argentina, including the right to appeal.”

If Fernández and Kirchner win the election, Secchi said, Argentina could enter uncharted territory. Although the country has a record of trying former leaders, he said, judges here have tended to look the other way when it comes to those in power.

Argentine voters will have the first chance to decide whether to turn a blind eye to the allegations swirling around Kirchner, or to give a second chance to Macri, who promised prosperity but so far has presided over an economic collapse.

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