Argentine first lady poised to win presidency

First Lady Cristina Kirchner may run for president of Argentina.
First Lady Cristina Kirchner may run for president of Argentina. Diego Giudice/MCT

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — With two weeks left until Argentines choose a new president, first lady Sen. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is cruising to a historic victory, even though she's revealed little about who she is or what she'd do once in office.

The 54-year-old candidate has kept her campaign appearances to a minimum in the run-up to the vote Oct. 28 and has even refused to take part in a debate among presidential candidates.

Nonetheless, many in this nation of 40 million seem ready to support her as a show of confidence in her popular husband, President Nestor Kirchner, who isn't running for re-election.

According to public opinion polls, Fernandez de Kirchner has the support of nearly 50 percent of voters and leads her nearest challenger by more than 30 percentage points. If her support holds, she's headed for a first-round electoral win.

Fernandez de Kirchner would become the first Argentine woman to win a presidential vote and would join only a handful of female leaders ever to have led Latin American countries. Like her husband, Fernandez de Kirchner belongs to the Peronist Justicialist party.

"There is no demand for change in society," political scientist Julio Burdman said. "These people are winning because of that and because of all the tools they have, in spite of the campaign. Because, basically, there has been no campaign."

The first lady has had a wide lead in the polls since she announced her candidacy in July by promising Argentines both change and a continuation of her husband's government.

Many here credit the president with rescuing the country from an economic crisis that sank nearly 60 percent of the population into poverty in 2002 and shrank the economy by 20 percent. Since his 2003 election, the economy has grown by about 8 percent every year and the poverty rate has dropped to about 25 percent.

The government's recipe for recovery has included maintaining fiscal discipline while pushing pro-growth policies that have kept the currency cheap but also triggered inflation.

Driver Carlos Grino, who lives in the humble outskirts of Buenos Aires, the capital, said he planned to vote for the first lady because he trusted her husband.

"We don't know much about her," Grino said. "All I know is she'll have the same approach as her husband, and it'll be the same government. This government put this country back together after it fell apart."

In an August poll by the consulting firm Graciela Romer & Associates, two-thirds of respondents said they thought that Fernandez de Kirchner, if elected, would consult with her husband before reaching important decisions.

Some speculate that the Kirchners plan to alternate presidential terms for years to come. Argentine law allows presidents to seek only two consecutive four-year terms, but permits repeated nonconsecutive mandates.

Fernandez de Kirchner has trumpeted her husband's accomplishments during her low-key campaign while highlighting her own nearly two decade-long career in politics.

Speaking to business leaders earlier this week, she said that keeping economic growth on track would require attracting more investment. Argentina remains a pariah among international investors after defaulting on nearly $100 billion in debt in 2001.

She said Argentines were recovering "a middle class and social mobility that were the cultural and sociological characteristics that distinguished and distinguishes our country in the Latin American context."

Her opponents, however, accuse the Kirchner administration of sowing the seeds for future turmoil by failing to rein in inflation and instead capping prices on everything from beef to vegetables.

The government estimates that inflation will hit nearly 10 percent this year, although many economists think that the real rate is double the official estimate. This week, the government convinced supermarket chains, markets and wholesale vendors to drop prices on some goods by as much as 7 percent.

Such price caps have discouraged investment and exposed the country to shortfalls in energy and basic goods, said presidential candidate Elisa Carrio, a former legislator who's running a distant second to the first lady.

Carrio said the measures also had hurt Argentina's powerful agriculture industry and set it at odds with the government.

"I don't know who President Nestor Kirchner is working for, because he's creating very difficult conditions in Argentina's governability," Carrio said at a campaign event this week.

Over the past year, the president has met other difficulties, including government corruption scandals, political strife in his native province of Santa Cruz and the defeats of key allies in provincial governor elections, including in Buenos Aires.

Fernandez de Kirchner has been criticized for using the presidential plane and other government resources for her campaign, including on overseas trips, where she's been treated more like a president-elect than a candidate.

Despite all that, Argentines are saying they don't want to take a chance on a new government, especially after the turmoil of the past decade, political analyst Graciela Romer said.

"It's going to be a vote of thanks," Romer said. "It's a recognition of Kirchner's leadership, which has helped a lot of sectors in this country."