Argentina‘s Peronist leader Alberto Fernandez was sworn in as president on Tuesday, marking a shift to the left for Latin America’s third-largest economy, which is suffering rampant inflation, credit default fears and rising poverty.
The 60-year-old centre-left politician took his presidential oath in front of cheering legislators at Congress along with political leaders from the region and representatives from major trade partners including Brazil and the United States.
Fernandez takes over from conservative Mauricio Macri, who symbolically handed the incoming leader the presidential baton and sash.
Al Jazeera’s Teresa Bo, reporting from Buenos Aires, said Fernandez, who has sought to advance his image as a “man of the people” drove himself to the ceremony at Congress in his own silver Toyota, waving to crowds lined along the roadside.
He is expected to travel to the Casa Rosada presidential palace, where he will hold a ceremony with his new ministers.
Cheering supporters gathered in the historical Plaza de Mayo square in the centre of Buenos Aires opposite the pink-hued palace, waving banners and beating drums while food vendors grilled “choripan” sausages in the summer heat.
His arrival marks a return of Argentina’s powerful left-leaning Peronist political flank, including his divisive Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, a rockstar populist who clashed with investors and farmers during her twin terms between 2007-2015.
For Fernandez supporters, “it’s an historic day” and “a celebration of democracy”, Bo said.
The new administration is expected to usher in growth-focused policies after unpopular austerity under Macri, which could strain already depleted state coffers.
Colourful banners hung around the central city square on Tuesday, many from unions and grassroots organisations which helped drive the Peronists back to power. T-shirts with the face of Fernandez de Kirchner read “We’re back.”
“Today there is going to be a party,” said Rafael Mantero, 45, a food vendor from the city of Rosario, who said he voted for Fernandez because he had seen his sales fall by around half in the last couple of years under Macri. “These past four years were terrible for me economically.”
Bo said Fernandez’s biggest challenge will be tackling annual inflation running above 50 percent, poverty approaching 40 percent amid recession, and tricky restructuring talks over around $100bn in sovereign debt with lenders including the International Monetary Fund.
In a reflection of political challenges ahead, Brazil’s right-wing leader Jair Bolsonaro, who has clashed publicly with Fernandez, did not attend, the first time since 2002 that a Brazilian president has not attended an inauguration in Buenos Aires.
Economy requires ‘rapid manoeuvre’
At front and centre for hard-hit Argentines, investors and markets are Fernandez’s plans to right the economy. He picked Martin Guzman, a young disciple of the Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, to head the economy ministry last week.
“Alberto needs to improve the economic and social situation,” said Veronica Quintana, 34, selling flags in the central square. “There are many people who are hungry and it is a critical situation we are in.”
Many investors have been worried about Fernandez ushering in greater state intervention, as happened under his vice president during her back-to-back administrations.
Fernandez, a political operator who burst into the limelight just this year, will need to balance varied demands of his broad Peronist coalition and pressure from Macri’s weakened, though still influential, party.
With little financial firepower, Fernandez has worker unions demanding wage increases to make up for high inflation and charities calling for an increase in subsidies for the poor.
“The first thing we are going to do is start working on the issue of hunger. At the same time, we will get to work on the issue of debt,” Fernandez told Radio Con Vos.
Political analyst Julio Burdman said this juggling act would be another major challenge for Fernandez.
“He needs to do a rapid manoeuvre to get the economy started again, which will all depend on how he is able to handle the debt,” Burdman said.