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Cristina Kirchner Files Candidacy Papers for Argentina's Senate

25 Jun 2017 2:11 am
By Taos Turner 

BUENOS AIRES -- Former President Cristina Kirchner filed papers on Saturday to run for Argentina's Senate, launching a campaign that could, if elected, give her congressional immunity from federal prosecution for alleged money laundering and racketeering during her presidency.

The candidacy thrusts Mrs. Kirchner back into the spotlight of Argentine politics, which she dominated as president from 2008 through 2015. It also promises to challenge President Mauricio Macri and further fragment a deeply divided Peronist political movement, which she once led, as it struggles to regroup after a historic defeat in Argentina's 2015 election.

The Senate race would be considered a referendum both on her legacy and the performance of her successor, Mr. Macri. A market-friendly former businessman who has reversed Mrs. Kirchner's populist policies, Mr. Macri could benefit if her campaign forces voters to choose between his promises of economic modernization and her legacy of corruption scandals.

"Her candidacy will help crystalize the conversation Argentina is having about the past and the future, and allow Macri's Pro party to present itself as the future," said Juan Cruz Díaz, managing director of Cefeidas, a risk advisory firm.

"It will polarize the election the way Marine Le Pen polarized France," Mr. Cruz Díaz said.

But the campaign also poses risks for Mr. Macri as he invites foreign investors to bet on Argentina. Mrs. Kirchner's policies, including price caps, currency controls and years of double-digit inflation, were deeply unpopular with investors. Many executives say they want proof that Mr. Macri's pro-business policies will last before they open their wallets.

On June 20, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index postponed a decision to include Argentina--which is now considered a "frontier" market--in its emerging-market stock index. The MSCI based its decision on concerns that Mr. Macri's policies may not be durable. Argentine stocks tanked on the news.

The campaign could also become rough. Mrs. Kirchner faces multiple criminal investigations and she has been indicted in three separate federal cases.

In one case, a judge ruled that Mrs. Kirchner ran a criminal "gang" aimed at profiting from the illegal disbursal of government funds for infrastructure projects. In another case, she was indicted over accusations she ordered Argentina's central bank to illegally trade derivatives, costing the country about $5.5 billion.

Officials in Mr. Macri's Pro party plan to refer frequently to these cases during the campaign, hoping this will favor the party's chances of gaining congressional seats.

Mrs. Kirchner has denied the allegations and accused Mr. Macri, judges and the media of conspiring to distract attention from his own economic record. She says that poverty has risen sharply since Mr. Macri took office.

"I'm not afraid of going to jail," Mrs. Kirchner said last year.

If Mrs. Kirchner wins in October, she would be eligible to run for the presidency again in 2019, when Mr. Macri finishes his first four-year term.

Pollsters say she has a solid base of support in Argentina's largest province, Buenos Aires, where she is campaigning. Mr. Macri's chief pollster, Jaime Duran Barba, has said she would be a formidable candidate and get at least 25% of the vote in the province. In an election in which the Peronist movement--named after late Argentine strongman Juan Domingo Perón--is split among various candidates, that would likely be enough to win.

A year-and-a-half after leaving office, however, Mrs. Kirchner is deeply unpopular elsewhere in Argentina. Many once-loyal supporters have distanced themselves. Key Peronists such as Salta Province Gov. Juan Manuel Urtubey have supported Macri.

Mrs. Kirchner's approval rating was 32.8% in late May, according to pollster Management & Fit. Her disapproval rating was 47.5%, the highest since early 2015, when a federal prosecutor accused her of conspiring with Iran to cover up a 1994 terrorist bombing in Buenos Aires.

Mrs. Kirchner denied that allegation and two courts later dismissed the case, saying no crime had been committed. The prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, was found dead, with a bullet in his head, hours before he was to present his case in Congress. The circumstances surrounding his death were never clarified.

Mariel Fornoni, who oversaw the Management & Fit poll, said Mrs. Kirchner would be a good senate candidate because her base of support -- a third of the electorate -- is rock solid. But the rest of the electorate "destests" her, Mrs. Fornoni said, limiting Mrs. Kirchner's presidential potential.

"She would be a very bad presidential candidate in 2019," Mrs. Fornoni said.

Still, Mrs. Kirchner's supporters are elated she is running. The former president ramped up spending on social programs during her tenure, winning support among the poor.

At a recent rally, Mrs. Kirchner surrounded herself with women and minorities, who she said were struggling under Mr. Macri. The rally, attended by tens of thousands of people, underscored her supporters' loyalty.

"Macri hasn't kept his campaign promises," said Ana Moreno, a 62-year-old psychologist, who was at the event. "Elderly people don't have enough money to get by, and this government cares only about the rich. We need Cristina to be president again."


Alberto Messer

contributed to this article.

Write to Taos Turner at taos.turner@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 24, 2017 22:11 ET (02:11 GMT)

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