Argentina's first lady wins presidency, polls say

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — In a widely expected landslide victory, Argentine first lady Sen. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was on track to winning her country's presidency Sunday night and becoming Latin America's second woman to be elected president within two years.

Exit poll results broadcast by the television channel Todo Noticias showed Fernandez de Kirchner winning 46.3 percent of the vote in this 40 million-person country, well ahead of second-place candidate, former legislator Elisa Carrio, who won 23.7 percent of ballots cast. Other exit polls showed similar results.

Former economy minister Roberto Lavagna won 13.1 percent of the vote, according to Todo Noticias, and San Luis province Gov. Alberto Rodriguez Saa received 7.5 percent. In total, 14 presidential candidates were in the running.

If the results hold, the first lady will have won the top job outright and avoided a run-off vote. Opposition leaders raised suspicions of fraud Sunday after some voting stations opened late and others ran out of ballots. Voting was extended an extra hour Sunday night.

Argentines also voted Sunday for about half of the country's 257 federal deputies, a third of its 72 federal senators and governors in eight provinces, including Buenos Aires, the country's most populous, home to about 38 percent of the electorate. Exit polls show Vice President Daniel Scioli winning there with about half the vote in a field of 16 candidates, a performance that helped Fernandez de Kirchner mightily.

Her allies are expected to expand their majority in the federal legislature.

Fernandez de Kirchner, a 54-year-old lawyer who has been in elected public office for nearly two decades, is expected to follow the center-left policies of her husband, President Nestor Kirchner, while inheriting tricky problems such as rising inflation and growing energy shortages.

She is Argentina's first woman to be elected president and, after she's sworn in Dec. 10 to a four-year term, only the second woman to take the job. Argentine leader Juan Peron's third wife, Maria Estela Martinez de Peron, was elected her husband's vice president and took office after he died in 1974.

Neighboring Chile elected its first woman president, Michelle Bachelet, last year, and women leaders could also become favored presidential candidates in Brazil and Paraguay.

Speaking to reporters in the Patagonian city of Rio Gallegos after voting Sunday morning, Fernandez de Kirchner limited her comments to praise for democracy, which she said she appreciated after having grown up during military dictatorships. She and her husband fled to Patagonia, where he was raised, during Argentina's 1976-1983 dictatorship, and the couple began their political careers there.

"I am part of a generation that grew up in a country where no one could say anything," she said. "We value this in a very special way."

In a low-key campaign devoid of debates with other candidates or much contact with the news media, the first lady repeatedly pledged to continue her husband's government while also promising change.

Many Argentines credit President Kirchner with reviving the country from a 1998-2002 economic crisis that saw the country's economy shrink by about 20 percent and poverty rates shoot above 50 percent. The country also defaulted on nearly $100 billion in public debt, the biggest such default in history.

Since then, Argentina's economy has expanded by an average of 8 percent a year, and poverty rates have dropped by more than half. Kirchner's government has sparked consumption and economic growth by keeping the country's currency cheap and fueling exports, among other measures.

Kirchner has also encouraged human rights prosecutions of military officials and others connected to the country's last dictatorship, a pursuit that his wife is expected to continue.

The promise of more of the same inspired many of Argentina's 27 million voters such as Gabriel Arruda, a Buenos Aires building manager, to vote for Fernandez de Kirchner Sunday.

"It's better to have the known than the unknown," Arruda said.

Erica Villafana, a nanny in the middle-class Buenos Aires suburb of La Matanza, said she voted for Fernandez de Kirchner Sunday because the first lady reminded her of Peron's beloved second wife, Eva Peron.

"Cristina cares about the poor like Evita did," Villafana said. "This government has brought a lot of aid here."

Curbing inflation, however, will not be easy, with some economists estimating prices to have grown by nearly 20 percent this year, more than double the official estimate. Kirchner's government has tried to rein in inflation largely through price controls. Another challenge will be sparking energy production in a country where demand is badly outstripping supply.

A series of corruption scandals involving government ministers and other officials have also eaten into Kirchner's approval ratings, which hover around 50 percent. In the run-up to Sunday's vote, Kirchner's allies lost key races such as that for the mayor of Buenos Aires city and the governor of the country's third most populous province, Santa Fe.

Nonetheless, Kirchner could have easily won re-election, polls show, but opted to step aside and make way for his wife's run. Some speculate he will alternative presidential terms with her, which Argentine law allows.

"This victory means a continuity of their political project while giving the Kirchners a blank check at least for the first few months," said Guido Braslavsky, a journalist with Clarin, the country's most widely read newspaper. "But here, in Argentina, everything moves quickly, and political movements grow like mushrooms in rain and disappear just as fast."

(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Shane Romig contributed to this story from Buenos Aires.)