Argentina's Fernandez de Kirchner easily reelected as president

Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner on Sunday
REPORTING FROM BUENOS AIRES AND SANTIAGO -- Aided by a booming economy, populist policies and public sympathy over the death of her husband and predecessor, Argentina President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner easily won a second term in Sunday’s national election.

With 58% of the ballots counted, the 58-year old former senator and widow of late former President Nestor Kirchner, had 53% of the vote, far ahead of the nearest of six rivals, Socialist candidate and governor of Santa Fe state Hermes Binner, with 17%.

“All I want is to keep helping ... to keep Argentina growing,” she said in her victory speech. “I want to keep changing history.”

Exit polls also indicated that candidates allied with her Victory Front party would regain control of both houses of Argentina’s congress, a majority she had lost in the 2009 election.

A victory, particularly without the need for a runoff,  represents a remarkable turnaround for Fernandez, whose approval ratings had slumped to 20% in 2008, the year after she took office and imposed export controls and taxes on the nation’s booming farm industry. A wave of strikes ensued, but the nation’s resilience in the face of the global economic crisis -- and her spending on social projects and consumer subsidies -- helped turn voter sentiment in her favor.

“I agree with everything she’s doing. There is more social inclusion, more jobs, people are buying more cars and taking vacations,” said housewife Viviana Bucaron, 39, after voting in the lower middle class Villa Pueyrredon neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

Voters overlooked such negatives as a 25% inflation rate, second highest in South America after Venezuela.

Widespread belief that the currency is due for a devaluation has caused capital flight of about $18 billion this year. Some analysts predict political shock waves if and when the government cuts social subsidies, that this year carry a price tag of $15 billion.

“They are unsustainable and the clock is ticking. What’s unclear is when the bomb goes off,” said Daniel Kerner, a Latin America analyst for the Eurasia Group consulting group in Buenos Aires.
For now, Argentina is living prosperously. The country’s economy has been among Latin America’s strongest and is expected to grow 8 percent this year. Per capita incomes have doubled, poverty has been cut nearly in half and 3 million jobs have been created over the last decade.

“The economy is going very well, there are jobs and there is credit,” said Manuel Mora y Araujo, a political analyst in Buenos Aires. “Plus her social assistance to the poor and to retirees has consolidated her support among the lower classes.

Mora y Araujo added that Fernandez is the latest in a series of “providential” leaders that Argentinians seem to favor, such as strongman Juan Peron and his wife Evita. Their power base depends on special connections with the poor, general instability and weak institutions.

To be sure, Fernandez has benefited greatly from forces beyond her control, especially the global commodities boom, which has driven up the price of soy, the nation’s leading export. But her decision to heavily tax farm exports means a large chunk of the windfall goes to the government to finance a range of programs from public transport and electricity subsidies to increased pensions and welfare payments.

“Cristina has proved to be far more astute than her critics, and even many of her supporters, believed,” said Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

Manufacturing also has boomed, thanks to relatively low labor costs in the aftermath of the 2001 devaluation that made Argentinan products cheaper on international markets. Rising market demand in neighboring Brazil, the continent’s emerging economic powerhouse, also helped.

Analysts say she won votes by virtue of public sympathy over the death of her husband last year. “We had hoped to have him with us longer,” said a tearful Fernandez after voting Sunday at a public school in southern Santa Cruz state. “He touched the political life of the country and has gone down in history."

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-- Andres D’Alessandro in Buenos Aires and Chris Kraul in Santiago

Photo: Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Buenos Aires on Sunday. Credit: Alejandro Pagni / AFP / Getty Images

 
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