Argentina expects president to keep role even after wife takes office

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — With first lady Sen. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner widely expected to win Sunday's presidential vote, the big question for many Argentines is what role her husband, the current president, will play over the next four years.

No matter who wins, President Nestor Kirchner, 57, will leave office in December with his popularity and political muscle intact. Many Argentines credit him with leading an economic recovery that pulled the country out of deep crisis.

That record helped Fernandez de Kirchner build a wide lead in public opinion polls ever since she announced her candidacy in July. Practically every poll released on the eve of elections shows her winning more than 40 percent of Sunday's vote and leading the second-place candidate, former legislator Elisa Carrio, by more than 20 percentage points, enough to avoid a runoff vote.

Yet no one expects the president to fade away once his wife takes office.

Walter Curia, who wrote a best-selling biography of the president, said he thought that Kirchner would still call the shots in his wife's government and possibly run for the top job again after her term ended, as Argentine law permits.

Since Kirchner was elected governor of an out-of-the-way Patagonian province in 1991, the couple has made all important public decisions together, Curia said, although Kirchner has always been given the final say.

"I see no sign that anything will change if Cristina wins Sunday," Curia said. "Even in his wife's government, the final decision will still be Kirchner's."

Political analyst Carlos Fara predicted that Kirchner will play a supporting role — but key — to his wife by weeding out dissent within their fractured Peronist Justicialist Party.

With his combative style, Kirchner has fueled intense opposition from fellow Peronists since he took office in 2003, and two of Fernandez de Kirchner's top challengers in the 14-person presidential race this year come from that party.

On Wednesday, former President Carlos Menem, a Peronist who lost the 2003 presidential race to Kirchner, equated the president with "the Antichrist."

At a political rally Wednesday, Kirchner said he'd oversee a "great democratic reorganization" of the party so that "all the chapters of the country and all Argentines can express themselves."

Fara said Kirchner's plan was to build loyalty to his wife and himself within the party.

"Kirchner will try to take control of the party structure so that there won't be any more rebellions within it," he said. "He'll build political protection for his wife."

While Kirchner has revealed little about his plans after he leaves office, many here say his ever-present role in his wife's campaign set a pattern.

Among other measures, he lent her government airplanes that took her to meet leaders around the world, and he freed millions of dollars in public money for aid programs weeks before Election Day. He also ordered Argentina's government-run television channel to broadcast many of his wife's political rallies while ignoring her challengers' events.

That provided ammunition for opposition candidates, who've slammed him as misusing state goods to support his wife's candidacy.

"This was an unequal campaign, of a thousand against one," Carrio said at her final campaign event Thursday night. "Officialism used the resources of the state in an obscene display."

Kirchner shared the spotlight with his wife at her final rally Thursday in the city of La Matanza outside Buenos Aires. Fernandez de Kirchner praised her husband's leadership before a crowd of some 8,000 supporters. She made a rare show of emotion by tearing up while embracing him.

"Many of the dreams of these four and a half years were the dreams of this man who is seated there and of mine, when we were very young and got to know each other," Fernandez de Kirchner said.

The first lady has made it clear throughout her campaign that she'd continue her husband's policies, which included confronting the International Monetary Fund and other lending bodies, which the couple blame for triggering the country's 1998-2002 economic crisis.

That link wins votes for the first lady from millions of Argentines such as Olga Cespedes, a maid who attended Thursday's rally and who said she credited Kirchner with saving the country.

Since Kirchner came out of nowhere to win the presidency in the aftermath of economic meltdown, Argentina's poverty rate has dropped more than 50 percent, salaries have grown by 89 percent and consumption is booming. The economy has grown by about 8 percent a year.

"The president took Argentina forward, and we know he's going to be helping her," Cespedes said. "It's going to be the same government."

Yet Kirchner also leaves his successor with thorny problems such as rising inflation and growing public worries about crime, which polls show top the list of voters' concerns.

Analysts say controlling inflation without jeopardizing growth presents the greatest challenge. Many economists think that prices have risen by double the official rate of 8 percent this year, and government price controls imposed on everything from gasoline to beef appear to be failing.

"This president has been tremendously lucky in that he took office as a worldwide economic boom was taking off," said James Neilson, a columnist for the magazine Noticias. "But they've assumed this is going to last forever, and there's an imminent crisis pending. It's going to keep both of them busy."