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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – A battery of corruption allegations and criminal charges against former President Cristina Fernandez hasn't fazed a strong band of hard-core backers, who have helped make her a leading — if undeclared — contender to regain power in next year's elections.
Hundreds of supporters, some waving signs saying, "Strength, Cristina!" thronged the street outside when investigators searched the former president's apartment recently.
Cries of support for Fernandez rise from crowds during protests against the austerity policies of the conservative who replaced her as president, Mauricio Macri.
"Now more than ever, soldiers of Cristina" read a sign at a demonstration demanding improved conditions for disabled retirees.
"Many women voted for the government of Mauricio Macri and now they regret it," Teresa Rollano said while walking arm-in-arm with a friend who carried that sign. "The people want Cristina because she represents the working class. She has given us all of our rights."
A recent survey by local pollster Ricardo Rouvier & Associates said Fernandez is neck-and-neck with Macri in terms of support ahead of the October 2019 election.
That's remarkable backing for a politician who faces numerous formal investigations into alleged bribery, money laundering and criminal association during her own administration from 2007 to 2015 and that of her late husband Nestor Kirchner from 2003 to 2007.
Fernandez, now a senator, hasn't been convicted of any crimes — a first trial is scheduled to start in February — and she fiercely denies any wrongdoing, accusing officials of persecuting her to distract from the current economic crisis.
But the Argentine press has been filled with picturesque scandals: bags of millions of dollars in cash tossed over a convent wall, the mysterious death of a prosecutor who accused Fernandez of a cover-up, the corruption conviction of her former vice president.
Part of her strength stems from disenchantment with Macri, whose budget-cutting efforts have forced thousands out of public jobs, raised electricity bills and hiked bus fares without managing to revive the economy or rein in soaring prices. His decision this year to seek IMF aid to help has roused fears among those who blame the international agency for a devastating economic crash in 2001, when Argentina's government was forced into the largest debt default in history to that point and millions of Argentines were plunged into poverty.
Many credit Kirchner and Fernandez for leading the country out of that crisis, even if Macri's backers blame Fernandez's policies for eventually creating the country's current woes.
Under Fernandez, "I was able to buy a new car, fix my house and travel on a plane for the first time," said Gloria Buffarini, a hairdresser. "I used to pay 600 pesos a month (about $16) for electricity. Now, it's 3,000 (about $80).
Fernandez's supporters credit her for nationalizing the pension system, keeping energy cheap through subsidies and redirecting revenue to the poor through handouts, and see her as a trailblazer for women's advancement.
The former president's appeal also flows from her leadership of a powerful — if often fragmented — populist tide in Argentine politics that originated with strongman Juan Domingo Peron in the 1940s and from progressive social policies she passed in the face of opposition from powerful business interests.
But she also inspires deep animosity. Detractors blame her for endemic corruption and the deterioration of Argentina's economy, which was choked by restrictions on imports, exports and foreign currency exchanges in the latter part of her administration.
"Not since Peron has there been another leader who has generated such a situation of love and hate," said Mariel Fornoni of the Management & Fit consultancy. She said Fernandez has a "hard core of followers who are going to vote for her no matter what she does."
Fernandez infuriates people like Patricio Canbelari, a language teacher, who said, "Most want to see her arrested," and called her a "white-gloved thief."
Fernandez's former public works secretary was arrested in 2016 when he was caught tossing bags containing more than $9 million over the walls of a convent. He later agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, joining other witnesses in accusing Fernandez and her son of overseeing a plan to skim millions of dollars from public works projects.
Judges also are investigating allegations published by the newspaper La Nacion that a senior official's chauffeur kept detailed diaries of millions of dollars in cash payments, including some delivered to the presidential offices and to Fernandez's private home.
Fernandez, along with other former officials, also faces trial on charges that she covered up the role of Iranians in a 1994 terrorist bombing at a Jewish center in Argentina's capital. The prosecutor who first recommended charges against her, Alberto Nisman, died mysteriously of a gunshot wound four days later — a case that is still under investigation.
Fernandez's former vice president, Amado Boudou, is in prison, appealing a sentence for bribery and business incompatible with his public office. He was accused of using shell companies and middlemen to take over the only company with contracts to print Argentina's currency.
Fernandez's Senate seat grants her immunity from arrest but not from prosecution. That immunity could be lifted only by an unlikely vote of two-thirds of the country's senators. While a conviction might theoretically bar her from running for office, that would only occur after appeals were exhausted — a process that would take many years.
Fornoni said some Argentines believe that although corruption was rife during Fernandez's term, it exists in Macri's government as well.
"They say: 'They were probably corrupt, but I lived better,'" Fornoni said.
Associated Press journalist Paul Byrne contributed to this report.