President Cristina Fernández was re-elected by a landslide Sunday, exit polls predicted, making her the first woman re-elected as president in Latin America. The polls said Fernández won 54 percent to 55 percent of the votes cast — the widest victory margin for any Argentine president since democracy was restored in the country three decades ago.
A win would be bittersweet for the populist leader, whose campaign is aided by a booming economy, because it would be her first in a lifetime of politics without her husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, who died of a heart attack last Oct. 27.
Her voice almost broke as she spoke about this legacy, describing a mixture of pride and sorrow after casting her ballot in his hometown, the remote Patagonian city of Rio Gallegos. "In this world where they have criticized us so forcefully, all this makes me feel very proud, that we're on the right track," she said. Kirchner "would be very content."
Fernández can win with as little as 40 percent of the vote if none of her rivals comes within 10 percentage points of her, but the latest polls suggested she could capture between 52 percent and 57 percent of votes.
Her Front for Victory coalition also hopes to regain enough seats in Congress to form new alliances and regain the control it lost in 2009. At play are 130 lower house seats and 24 Senate seats.
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Fernández's poll numbers had dipped during the early years of her presidency, but she has reversed the negative numbers as a widow, softening her usually combative tone and proving her ability to govern on her own by ensuring loyalty or respect from an unruly political elite.
Many Argentines in pre-election polls said they would vote for her because their financial situations have improved during one of its longest spells of economic growth in history.
If trends hold, Fernández could receive a larger share of votes than any president since Argentina's democracy was restored in 1983, when Raul Alfonsin was elected with 52 percent, and more than anyone since her strongman hero, Juan Domingo Peron, who won with 60 and 63 percent in his last two elections.
Fernández, 58, chose her youthful, guitar-playing, long-haired economy minister, Amado Boudou, as her running mate. Together, the pair championed Argentina's approach to the global financial crisis: Increase government spending rather than impose austerity measures, and force investors in foreign debt to suffer before ordinary citizens.
Argentina has been closed off from most international lending since declaring its world-record debt default in 2001, but has been able to sustain booming growth ever since.
The country faces tough challenges in 2012, however. Its commodities exports are vulnerable to a global recession, and economic growth is forecast to slow sharply in the coming year. Declining revenues will make it harder to raise incomes to keep up with inflation. Argentina's central bank is under pressure to spend reserves to maintain the peso's value against the dollar, while also guarding against currency shocks that could threaten Argentina's all-important trade with Brazil.
If his ticket wins, Boudou could win attention as a potential successor to Fernández, but navigating these storms will require much skill and good fortune.
Opposition candidates have blamed Fernández for rising inflation, for politically manipulated economic data, rising crime and attempts to use government power to control media criticism. They have also accused the government of failing to prepare Argentina for another global crisis.
"It's not clear where the world is headed. It's better to be prepared. This isn't achieved with conflict, but through dialogue," socialist Hermes Binner said as he voted. He was in second place in the last polls, with between 12 percent and 17 percent of the vote.
In addition to Binner, 68, a doctor and governor of Santa Fe province, candidates include Ricardo Alfonsin, 59, a lawyer and congressional deputy with the traditional Radical Civic Union party and son of the former president; Alberto Rodriguez Saa, 52, an attorney and governor of San Luis province whose brother Adolfo was president for a week; Eduardo Duhalde, who preceded Kirchner as president; leftist former lawmaker Jorge Altamira, 69, and Elisa Carrio 54, a congresswoman who came in second behind Fernández four years ago but trailed the field this time.
Voting is obligatory in Argentina, and nearly 29 million citizens among the 40 million population are registered. Fernández said Interior Minister Florencio Randazzo, who is responsible for managing the election process, told her that turnout was strong and everything going smoothly.
"I've been a political activist my whole life, but I haven't always been able to vote," Fernández said, referring to the 1966-1973 and 1976-1983 dictatorships, which tried and failed to eliminate Peronism as an electoral force. "To be able to vote freely in the Argentine republic is an achievement."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.
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