Outgoing Argentine president, loved and loathed, says she's not going away, but plans unclear

When Argentines chose a new president in recent elections, many voters seemed more concerned about what would happen with the old one.

Such is the hold of outgoing President Cristina Fernandez on the public imagination in this South American country, where the telegenic, combative and polarizing leader steps down Dec. 10 after dominating the political landscape during eight years in office. Fernandez, who was constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term, leaves with high approval ratings despite myriad economic problems and the cloud of several alleged corruptions scandals.

Perhaps most significantly, she'll be leaving after a major political defeat: Her chosen successor, Daniel Scioli, lost Sunday's presidential election to Mauricio Macri, who campaigned on free-market ideas as well as promises to roll back many of Fernandez's left-leaning policies and distance the country from Venezuela.

"It's unlikely that Fernandez goes quietly into the night," said Jason Marczak, deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. "But her concrete plans postelection? Your guess is as good as mine."

Fernandez, 62, has said little about her future, other than repeatedly promising not to go away. It's hard to imagine anything less from Argentina's most important female political figure since Eva Peron, the country's iconic first lady from the 1940s. Even before assuming the presidency, Fernandez was a central figure as first lady in the administration of her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, and as a senator.

"Know this," Fernandez told thousands of supporters late last month. "I won't be president Dec. 10, but I will always be there for the people when I'm needed."

But the lack of clarity over her future has not stopped speculation. Some theorize she is positioning herself for a presidential run in 2019 while others say her political era has run its course.

In the short-term, Fernandez will try to keep control of the Peronist Party, which maintains a majority in the Senate, the largest bloc in the lower house and governorships of 15 out of 24 provinces.

She'll have some powerful allies, including son Maximo Kirchner, who leads large political youth movement called La Campora, and outgoing Economy Minister Axel Kicillof. Both have been elected to Congress.

But Fernandez will also face fierce competition. A principal adversary will be Sergio Massa, a former Fernandez Cabinet chief who broke with the president to form his own political movement. Massa got 21 percent of the vote in the first round of presidential voting last month, appealing to dissident Peronists frustrated by Fernandez's administration.

"Peronism is entering a process of rupture and change," said Roberto Bacman, director of the Center for Public Opinion Studies, a South American research firm. "The fight is to see who will be its leader over the next four years."

One common theory, flatly rejected by her supporters, is that Fernandez wanted Scioli to lose, and thus didn't campaign hard on his behalf. The logic is that she could be a more powerful force as opposition leader than as a former president who had to play nice with the new party standard-bearer.

In the days after Scioli's worse-than-expected showing in the first round of the election, speculation of a rupture between him and Fernandez was so intense that Scioli felt compelled to come out and dispel what he said were unfounded rumors.

In Fernandez's first comments after the first found, she spoke for two hours, touting her record, reminiscing about her late husband and promising to defend the power couple's accomplishments. She never mentioned Scioli.

Raul Aragon, director of consulting firm Raul Aragon and Associates, says Fernandez's chances of returning to power have been hurt by the success of Maria Eugenia Vidal. The 42-year-old from Macri's PRO party won the vast Buenos Aires province, traditionally a bastion of Peronist support, edging out a candidate hand-picked by Fernandez.

"Vidal is going to keep Cristina from returning to power," said Aragon. "She is young, charismatic and occupies some of the same political space as Fernandez."

Several alleged corruption scandals could also hurt Fernandez. One ongoing probe involves Hotesur, a firm owned by the president to manage her family's hotels.

Late last year and again in July, Hotesur's headquarters were raided amid an investigation into whether the firm had failed to pay taxes on Fernandez's hotels. Administration officials have always claimed the investigation is politically motivated.

It's also unclear whether Macri will make investigating the outgoing administration a priority. He said during his victory speech Sunday that his presidency will not be about "settling scores."

"People are tired of the confrontations, the fights and all the accusations," said Analia Del Franco, director of consulting firm Analogias. "In that way, Cristina's style has run its course."


Peter Prengaman on Twitter: http://twitter.com/peterprengaman His stories can be found at: http://bigstory.ap.org/search/site/Peter%20Prengaman.