Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the year Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s husband died. Néstor Kirchner died in 2010. It also misidentified the polling director of Ibarometro. His name is Ignacio Ramirez, not Rodriguez. This version has been corrected.
BUENOS AIRES — In Argentine politics, those who stay in power long enough — or wield it mightily enough — are immortalized with an “-ismo.”
“Kirchnerismo” is the legacy of the 12 years that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband, Néstor, have run this country, a spin on the “Peronismo” of Juan and Evita Perón. And like the 1950s-era edition, it is less an ideology than a ruling style, defined by the concentration of power, populist social welfare programs and a steady diet of Argentine nationalism.
Barred by the constitution from running for a third term, Fernández will not be on the ballot in October. But she will very much be on the minds of voters as they decide whether to keep Kirchnerismo going.
Just a few months ago, analysts were writing its political obituary, dragged down as it is by a weak economy, unchecked inflation and the shadowy death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman just before he was due to testify against the president in the country’s most notorious terrorism case. Many Argentines were convinced that Nisman was murdered, and they aimed their wrath at Fernández.
But since then she has bounced back in polls, leaving some analysts convinced that her left-
populist brand of politics and influence are likely to endure after she leaves office in December.
“I don’t see many signs that Kirchnerismo has run its course,” said Ignacio Ramirez , a political consultant and the director of the polling firm Ibarometro. “The ideological climate hasn’t changed. You can’t win an election here calling for reprivatization and liberal economic reforms.”
Leading the polls ahead of the Aug. 9 primaries is Daniel Scioli, a member of Fernández’s party. He served as vice president under Néstor Kirchner between 2003 and 2007 but is not part of the Kirchner inner circle. Analysts say he has far too big a political reputation to serve as a mere puppet figure for her to remain in power.
“We have a saying in Argentina,” said Jorge Lanata, a popular talk show host and muckraking reporter who frequently clashes with Fernández. “Two don’t fit in one chair.”
As governor of the province of Buenos Aires, Scioli cultivated his image as an upbeat and efficient task manager, eschewing the confrontational style of the Kirchners and their leftist politics for a sunnier, more centrist message. The 58-year-old former businessman also offers a compelling life story, having lost his right arm in a 1989 boat-racing accident.
But though he differs in style, Scioli has positioned himself as the candidate of Kirchnerismo continuity. His vice-presidential running mate, Carlos Zannini, is the Kirchners’ longtime consigliere, a powerful insider who has worked behind the scenes and retains deep loyalties to the couple. Scioli’s campaign team, too, is stocked with “Kirchernistas,” so a victory would leave him with an obvious debt to his predecessor.
If Scioli wins the presidency with Zannini on the ticket, according to one joke going around Buenos Aires, Scioli had better make sure to open his own drinks.
Scioli’s probable opponent, Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, 56, has been the most prominent critic of the Kirchners. The wealthy son of an Italian industrialist, Macri is trying to transcend a reputation for close ties to Argentina’s business and financial elite. His challenge, observers say, will be to unite the disparate members of the anti-Kirchner opposition into a broad base of support.
“Macri represents change,” said Fabián Perechodnik, director of polling firm Poliarquia. “Scioli represents continuity, with a few changes and adjustments.”
The appeal of Kirchner continuity stems in part from fears that Macri would run the country in the style of former president Carlos Menem, whose application of liberal economics and privatization push are blamed for the country’s 2001 economic collapse.
Nearly half the country was left in poverty in the period of financial and political instability that followed, paving the way for the rise of Néstor Kirchner and his wife.
The Kirchners renationalized the Argentine pension system, the state oil company and the state airline. They broadened access to health care and education, and they even ordered television broadcasters to show soccer games free of charge.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner won a landslide reelection in 2011, but Néstor died of a heart attack the previous year, and her second term has been a rocky one. Relations with the United States turned sour as she developed close ties with the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez and other leftist figures in the region. More recently, she has clashed with the international creditors she calls “vultures” who are trying to collect on unpaid debt from the 2001 debacle, winning praise at home.
But the couple repeatedly stumbled through scandals. The Kirchners’ wealth grew through ties to Argentine businessmen who benefited from government contracts, and after more than a decade Fernández is arguably less popular than Kirchnerismo.
The country remains mired in a “structural poverty trap,” according to a former high-ranking Argentine economic official.
“The government has plenty of resources because of increased tax collection, but it has overspent them, irrationally,” he said. “What’s left is poor infrastructure that leaves medium-size companies unable to compete.”
Argentina’s wheat harvest is at its lowest point in decades, and growers cite crushing export taxes and currency controls. Beef exports — a traditional source of Argentine fortune and national pride — have plummeted, too, falling behind smaller neighbors Uruguay and Paraguay.
Yet analysts also concede that the popular social welfare policies of Kirchnerismo will be difficult for her successor to dial back.
Though Scioli is viewed as the guardian of Kirchnerismo policies, he enjoys enough personal distance from Fernández to avoid the fallout of her worst scandals, including the death of prosecutor Nisman.
Surveys found that a majority of Argentines believe Nisman was murdered, but street protests against Fernández have faded, and the government appears to have succeeded in depicting him as an unstable, egomaniacal playboy who cracked under pressure and took his own life.
He was found dead in his apartment from a gunshot wound a day before he was scheduled to give testimony in Argentina’s Congress accusing Fernández of colluding with Iran to cover up the worst terrorist attack in the country's history, the 1994 bombing of an Argentine-Israeli cultural center in Buenos Aires that killed 85.