By Sarah Marsh
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - In her last speech as Argentine president, Cristina Fernandez on Wednesday entreated the thousands of supporters gathered to bid her farewell in the center of Buenos Aires to ensure that her legacy is not destroyed.
The rally marked the end of 12 years of leftist populism under Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner. On Thursday, conservative Mauricio Macri, who won a run-off election last month, will be sworn in as president.
"We believe in what we have achieved so we need to have a positive attitude to ensure that these things will not be destroyed," Fernandez told a sea of supporters in the Plaza de Mayo in front of La Casa Rosa presidential palace.
During her speech, the divisive leader also expressed outrage at Macri for seeking a court injunction affirming her term ends at midnight in the wake of their row over the location of the handover ceremony.
"I can't speak long because at midnight I turn into a pumpkin," she quipped.
Fernandez will skip Macri's swearing-in, government officials said. It would be the first time since the 1983 end of Argentina's military dictatorship that a president has not attended the inauguration of an elected successor.
Fernandez is revered by many Argentines for expanding welfare benefits, nationalizing some companies and introducing new civil rights like gay marriage. One supporter held aloft a heart-shaped cardboard cutout saying: "Thank you for 12 years of equality, egalitarianism, inclusion and sovereignty."
Her critics say she created a handout culture and choked Latin America's third largest economy with interventionist policies. Macri has vowed to remove state controls on the economy and conduct more orthodox policies.
Martin Sosa, an 18-year-old student, said he feared Macri would return Argentina to the neoliberal 1990s.
"I am grateful to this government because it gave us back our dignity by helping the poor. It gave us work, opened factories, improved access to public education and healthcare," he said.
"I am worried Macri will undo all this. He represents wealthy people."
Fernandez's party, the Front for Victory, still holds the most seats in the legislature and could make it hard for Macri to implement wholesale change.
Macri will also struggle to reel in unsustainable state spending without bringing Argentines onto the streets.
That said, some change is inevitable, according to private economists. Foreign reserves in Argentina are running precariously low, capital controls have stunted investment and inflation is around 25 percent.
(Additional Reporting by Richard Lough and Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Grant McCool and Leslie Adler)