Argentina to elect new president

 

Argentines go to the polls today to choose a successor to President Nestor Kirchner with first lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner poised to succeed her husband in a rare democratic handover between spouses.

Many Argentines credit centre-left President Nestor Kirchner with pulling the country out of a dramatic economic crisis and using growth of 8 per cent a year to create jobs, raise salaries and expand pension benefits.

A long-time senator, Fernandez has been Kirchner's top advisor in his four-year presidency. Voters tired of boom-bust cycles hope she will sustain the bonanza he has overseen, even as high inflation and energy shortages cause concern.

If she wins, Fernandez will be the first elected woman president in Argentine history.

She would avoid a run-off election by getting at least 45 percent of the votes on Sunday, or more than 40 per cent with a 10 percentage point lead over her nearest rival.

Recent polls show Fernandez with between 39.5 per cent and 49.4 per cent of votes. Former lawmaker and anti-corruption crusader Elisa Carrio trailed far behind, with around 20 per cent support.

Roberto Lavagna, Kirchner's economy minister until late 2005, was in third place with a maximum of 19 per cent.

All three candidates are center-leftists, showing that most Argentines reject the free-market policies of the 1990s, which they blame for the economic meltdown in 2001-02.

Fernandez would be the latest to join the growing ranks of leftist leaders in South America. But while she is expected to stay friendly with Venezuela's firebrand socialist president, Hugo Chavez, she, like her husband, is seen as more moderate.

Poverty has plummeted since Kirchner took office in May 2003, but nearly a quarter of Argentines are still poor.

"Nothing will change in Argentina, it's the same whether it's Cristina governing or President Kirchner," said Roberto Moran, 59, who sold tiny flags on the street. "For a country so rich in resources, we have a lot of unmet needs."