Argentina's Fernandez favored in re-election bid

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez said she will seek re-election and is expected to have the upper hand in the October vote as she capitalizes on a growing economy, the lack of a strong challenger and her image as a grieving widow.

Fernandez dispelled months of speculation about her political intentions late Tuesday when she announced in a nationally televised address that she would run again.

"How am I going to let up and not press forward?" the 58-year-old, center-left president asked.

Political analysts agree that given the current political landscape in Argentina, Fernandez is by far the front-runner. Some say that barring any major political fiasco, she could win in the first round of voting on Oct. 23.

"If nothing exceptional happens, I think she'll win in the first round. The opposition is very disoriented," said Sebastian Juncal, an analyst with the Buenos Aires-based Center for Studies of the State and Society. As for the opposition, Juncal said, "their chances are very low because they haven't been able to present a clear message and a platform that interests voters."

The latest poll by the private Center of Public Opinion Studies found that if elections were held today, Fernandez would receive about 47 percent of the vote, followed by 15 percent for opposition congressman Ricardo Alfonsin, the son of ex-President Raul Alfonsin, and 7 percent for fellow Peronist and former President Eduardo Duhalde. The poll was conducted in the final week in May and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

If Fernandez wins, she would keep her Peronist party in power for an unprecedented 12 years, a husband-and-wife dynasty that began when her late husband, Nestor Kirchner, took office in 2003.

Fernandez's first-round election victory in October 2007 was widely attributed to the support of her popular husband, whom many Argentines credited with reviving the country after its 2001-2002 economic collapse.

Fernandez, however, had already built a political career on her own terms, winning a legislative seat in the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz in 1991 when her husband became the province's governor. Fernandez later represented the remote province in the national Senate and Chamber of Deputies.

Political analysts speculated after her presidential win that the power couple planned to alternate four-year terms in the Casa Rosada, the country's presidential palace, thanks to Argentine laws letting presidents serve unlimited, non-consecutive terms. Argentine law does allow presidents to serve two consecutive terms.

Such speculation ended with her husband's death of a heart attack in October, after which Fernandez has constantly dressed in black. Some Argentines say she has drawn sympathy and rallied more support by showing she can lead and persevere as a widow.

"She was able to build emotional leadership after Nestor's death. Widowhood is a psychological element that is at play," said analyst Hugo Haime, of the Buenos Aires consulting firm Haime & Asociados.

Fernandez's use of black dresses has been compared by some to the black arm band former Argentine strongman President Juan Domingo Peron wore long after the death of his wife Eva Peron in 1952.

Mariana Pita, a 27-year-old lawyer, said she was surprised the president decided to run again.

"I see her as very fragile emotionally and physically," Pita said. "It appears more a response to pressure inside her party than what she wants."

Fernandez also has been aided by a rising economy that has neutralized the negative impact of rapid inflation.

Since her husband became president in 2003, Argentina's economy has enjoyed strong growth, surging by as much as 9 percent a year. The only weak year was 2009, when the economy grew just 0.9 percent amid the global downturn. The government predicts 4.3 percent growth this year.

Fernandez's supporters also credit her government with helping the poor through benefits, including monthly payments of $50 per child to informal workers, the unemployed and domestic workers. The money is given on the condition the children are vaccinated and attend school. According to official figures, 4.5 million children benefit from this program.

Hector Sanchez, a 53-year-old architect, said Fernandez can guarantee stability for Argentina.

"Cristina represents a less-cruel capitalism," Sanchez said. "Argentines don't want more recipes from the International Monetary Fund that end up provoking crises like in Greece today."

To win in the first round, a candidate needs at least 45 percent of the vote, or 40 percent if the second-place finisher is at least 10 percentage points behind.

If no candidate wins the first round of voting in October, a second round will be held in November. The field of candidates will be finalized in party primaries on Aug. 14.

Opponents have alleged mismanagement and corruption by Fernandez's government, and have also accused the administration of manipulating official statistics. The government, for instance, estimates there will be 8.4 percent inflation this year while independent analysts say the real inflation rate is likely to be above 25 percent.

A corruption scandal in the influential rights group Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which has close links to Fernandez, could also have political consequences for the president.

Lawyer Sergio Schoklender, the group's legal representative, is accused along with his brother Pablo and more than a dozen others of fraud, money laundering and illegal enrichment. The authorities' widening investigation has focused on the use of public funds that were intended to go toward the organization's social projects.

While earning about $16,000 a year in his role, Schoklender amassed a mansion, Ferrari and Porsche sports cars and a yacht, according to the opposition newspaper Clarin.

"The Schoklender case carries significant political damage for the government and will have an electoral cost, although today it's unclear how much, and in four months many things can change," said Rosendo Fraga, a political analyst with the New Majority think tank.

Haime, however, said he doubts the scandal poses any real threat to Fernandez.

"There's an electoral climate in which the government seems unbeatable," Haime said.