BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Nora Beatriz Diaz says her choice for president in Sunday's election was essentially decided six years ago, when she was hired by a government jobs program.
Now 55, the mother of two struggled for years to make ends meet. But through the "Argentina Works" program created by Cristina Fernandez's government, Diaz got a job cleaning and doing light construction.
"If I lose this job, I'll go back to zero," Diaz said of her $275-a-month salary. "This government has to stay in power."
That attitude helps explain why Fernandez hand-picked successor, Daniel Scioli, is leading in the polls despite the country's many economic hardships.
Diaz is among the estimated 30 percent of voters who political analysts say form the core of Kirchnerismo, the political movement of Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner. The couple's supporters credit them with lifting the economy after a devastating 2001-2002 financial crisis while also providing a lifeline to the poor.
Today, an estimated 15 million Argentines, or about 35 percent of the population, receive some kind of direct financial assistance from the government, according to researchers at the Catholic University of Argentina.
The programs are so popular that leading opposition candidate Mauricio Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires, felt compelled to tailor his campaign to take them into consideration.
Macri initially ran a pro-market campaign, promising to battle corruption and liberalize Argentina's protectionist economy. But with his poll numbers sagging, Macri in recent months has talked about achieving "zero poverty" and promised to maintain and even increase some social spending.
"People are afraid that their social programs will be taken away," said Leonardo Rajchert, president of a mobile phone distribution company and Macri supporter. "Macri won't do that. He'll just manage them better."
Scioli was leading in a half dozen private polls published over the past week, but the race is tight.
In one poll, by Ricardo Rouvier and Associates, 40.1 percent of respondents said they would vote for Scioli compared to 29.2 percent for Macri. Another 21.6 percent said they would vote for Sergio Massa, a former Fernandez loyalist who broke ranks to form his own party. The survey interviewed 1,200 people by phone Oct. 2-15 and had a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.
To win in the first round, a candidate must get at least 45 percent of the votes, or 40 percent and a 10 percent spread over the nearest competitor. If not, there will be a runoff between top two candidates on Nov. 22.
The close race comes at a time of inflation around 30 percent, stagnant gross domestic product and job growth and a fight with a group of U.S. creditors that has made Argentina an international financial pariah.
For Argentines, the reference point for a worst-case scenario is the financial meltdown of 2001 that plunged millions of members of the middle class into poverty. Many voters seem inclined to stick to the status quo out of fear that a different kind of presidential administration could trigger unknown problems.
Scioli, the governor of the Buenos Aires province and a former vice president, has suggested he will continue Fernandez's policies but make small adjustments where needed through what he calls "gradualismo," or gradual change.
Like the other candidates, Scioli has been notably light on policy details, leaving voters to guess on many issues.
Unknown is whether he would seek a deal with U.S. creditors who took Argentina to court in New York and won. Fernandez calls the funds "vultures" and refuses to negotiate. In recent weeks, close aides to Scioli have said his administration would move quickly to solve the dispute. But current Economy Minister Axel Kicillof has said such desires are based on "ignorance" and that it's "impossible" to simply reach a deal.
If anything, such contradictions underscore the considerable influence Fernandez still wields — despite the sluggish economy and several corruption scandals within her administration.
Early this year, the mysterious death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman threatened her presidency. Nisman was found dead Jan. 18, the day before he was to appear before Congress to elaborate on his accusation that Fernandez plotted to cover up the alleged role of several Iranian officials wanted in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center.
Fernandez denied the allegations, the courts later threw out Nisman's case and authorities have not charged anyone in the prosecutor's death.
The president's approval rating dropped from around 40 percent to 30 percent in the months after Nisman's death, said Roberto Bacman, director of the Center for Public Opinion Studies, a South American research firm. But by July, her ratings had soared to over 50 percent, which Bacman attributed to Argentines' general fear of changes in the economy — including an end to subsidies.
"I'm voting for Scioli," said 56-year-old Eduardo Saiach, who counted on government help to buy the industrial-sized oven he uses to bake sweet breads, bringing him about $300 a month. "If somebody else wins, the country will be going backward."