Argentina’s presidential race took an unexpected turn on Saturday when former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner announced that she had asked her former cabinet chief, Alberto Fernández, to run for the presidency in her place.
The fiery populist was widely expected to run for the presidency herself, given her strong performance in the polls. But Ms Fernández said in a video posted on social media that she would run for the vice-presidency beside the 60-year-old Mr Fernández, who is no relation.
“I was never that interested in political office, nor was it my main motivation,” said Ms Fernández in a nearly 13-minute video that sent shockwaves through Argentina’s political class.
“Having been president of this country twice, personal aspirations or ambition are subordinate to the general interest.” She added that the proposed presidential ticket was the best way of attracting the broadest support possible at a time when consensus was necessary to solve Argentina’s problems.
The surprise move will shake up an electoral race that already has markets on edge. There have been growing fears of a return to populism as President Mauricio Macri struggles to revive Argentina’s economy with an unpopular International Monetary Fund programme following a currency crisis last year.
Most pollsters have been arguing that the race is too close to call, with Mr Macri and Ms Fernández the most likely to confront each other in a second-round run-off vote. Both command the support of about a third of the population, while a large portion of voters remain undecided.
But some analysts argue that a Fernández-Fernández duo could tip the electoral balance in their favour. Mr Fernández is considered less radical than the former president, potentially winning more votes from the undecided centre ground — although he is something of an unknown quantity and has been measured in few if any opinion polls.
The new scenario has revived speculation about the government’s own electoral formula, and who Mr Macri’s own running mate could be. Some suggest he could pick a member of the Peronist opposition.
Leading members of the ruling coalition have even cast doubt in recent days on whether Mr Macri would be a candidate at all, potentially stepping aside for the popular governor of the province of Buenos Aires, Maria Eugenia Vidal.
Mr Fernández was cabinet chief from 2003 until 2008, throughout the presidency of Néstor Kirchner, the deceased husband and predecessor of Ms Fernández. He stayed on in the post for the first few months of Ms Fernández’s presidency, which began in late 2007.
Since then he has occasionally been fiercely critical of Ms Fernández, especially when acting as the campaign manager of the moderate Peronist Sergio Massa in the 2015 presidential elections. Mr Massa is a leading contender to represent the moderate Peronist bloc again this year.
The fact that Ms Fernández has been considered the de facto leader of the opposition since leaving power, given that she is still the most popular Peronist politician in the polls, has led some to suggest that she would remain the real power in a government headed by Mr Fernández.
“In Argentina every time that there is a split between real power and institutional power, the republic is weakened,” tweeted Hernán Lombardi, the government’s secretary for public media.