By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 29, 2007 10:10 AM
BUENOS AIRES, Oct. 28 -- The presidency of Argentina was handed from husband to wife Sunday, as first lady Cristina Fernández de Kirchner crushed 13 opposition candidates on the promise of adhering to the political principles that made President Néstor Kirchner one of Latin America's most popular leaders.
Results with around 95 percent of polling places reporting showed that Fernández de Kirchner had received about 45 percent of the vote, nearly twice that of the second place finisher and enough of a margin to avoid a runoff.
The victory makes her the second woman to be elected president in South America in the past two years, after Chile's Michelle Bachelet.
Fernández de Kirchner, 54, was a nationally recognized senator before her husband was elected president in 2003. But she pegged her presidential campaign to the successes of his term, in which there were four years of strong growth following the country's 2001 economic collapse and $100 billion debt default. She offered few concrete proposals during the electoral race, but promised to "deepen the change" that her husband's government instituted.
"A little more than four-and-a-half years ago, Argentines were living in difficult times of fragmentation and of confrontation," she said during a victory speech Sunday night in which she credited her husband with stabilizing the country. "The man who today accompanies me, who has been my companion all my life, assumed the presidency under very different circumstances than we have today."
Like her husband, Fernández de Kirchner is a fiery and often combative orator whose politics are rooted in the brand of populism made famous here by former strongman president Juan Perón and his wife, Eva. Néstor Kirchner's government steered the country away from the free-market policies of the 1990s that the Kirchners -- along with a large percentage of the population -- blame for the economic crisis. Fernández de Kirchner has vowed to remain defiantly opposed to the advice of global lending institutions such as the International Monetary Fund.
To her supporters, such declarations of economic independence -- together with a long history of holding Argentina's 1976-83 military dictatorship responsible for human rights abuses -- count as the Kirchners' principle strengths. Fernández de Kirchner's campaign literature drew parallels between her and Eva Perón, who is revered here as a champion of social justice and defender of the poor.
"Cristina will lead a government that represents all of the people, but the rest of the candidates want to govern just for the elites," said Néstor Arevalo, 38, who cast a ballot for Fernández de Kirchner in the province of Buenos Aires on Sunday. "She has proven herself to be a fighter for human rights, and that is very important in a country with a history like ours."
Raised in the provincial city of La Plata, Fernández de Kirchner was a student activist in the 1970s who supported the Perónist party and opposed a military dictatorship that had no tolerance for dissent. She met her husband while in law school there, and after the two moved together to the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, they formed an alliance that soon dominated the region's political landscape. He was elected the province's governor, and she became its senator. After he was elected president, she won a third term in the Senate in 2005, this time representing the province of Buenos Aires, the country's largest.
Her initial terms in the legislature established her as an active lawmaker, regularly challenging then-President Carlos Menem and championing reforms calling for a more transparent government. But aside from aggressively promoting reforms of the country's Supreme Court, her most recent term has been comparatively inactive and marked by reversals of some of her earlier positions.
"After her husband became the president, something changed in her," said Laura Alonso, executive director of Poder Ciudadano, a Buenos Aires-based organization affiliated with Transparency International. "Before, she was a great defender of the access of information law. And after he became president, she hated that law."
The idea that the Kirchners seek to accumulate power and stifle opposition is a handy dart thrown often by their critics. Néstor Kirchner's administration was led by a tight circle of close advisers, including his wife, and he never held cabinet meetings. When he announced this year that he would not run for reelection and would instead support his wife's bid, many interpreted it as a ploy by the couple to try to alternate terms and occupy the nation's top office for as long as 16 years.
"Nothing concerns them more than just staying in power," said Guillermo Dacini, 47, a banker who voted against Fernández de Kirchner on Sunday. "She's the same as her husband -- very authoritarian."
But the relative health of the economy -- which during Néstor Kirchner's term grew 8 percent annually, with unemployment dipping to 15-year lows -- was a key factor in preventing the complaints of the opposition candidates from igniting voters' passions. The early exit polls suggested that former congresswoman Elisa Carrió came in second with about 25 percent of the vote, followed by former economy minister Roberto Lavagna with about 15 percent.
The main difference between the outgoing and incoming presidents is one of style, according to political analysts. Whereas Néstor Kirchner is often brusque with world leaders and prone to gaffes of protocol, Fernández de Kirchner has cultivated a more diplomatic image and appears more concerned with courting foreign investment and polishing Argentina's image abroad.
"He has appeared very domestically oriented, whereas she appears much more prone to talk to the outside world and to engage other people in conversation," said Maria Victoria Murillo, a Latin American political scientist at Columbia University in New York. "She has been willing to meet with employers' associations and entrepreneurs to a much larger extent than he has been."
But when most people here speak about Fernández de Kirchner's style, they have something more superficial in mind. When she assumes office in December, the glamour quotient behind Argentina's presidential podium will instantly, and unapologetically, soar. Reporters here write often about her generously applied mascara, the prices of her luxurious Hermès Birkin handbags and her shopping trips to designer boutiques in Paris. The apparent contradiction between her populist discourse and her reputation as a fashionista is the same one that defined Eva Perón, and Fernández de Kirchner appears unconcerned by those who have tried to fault her for it.
She told journalist Olga Wornat, her biographer, who has known her since her university days, that others have no right to expect her to surrender her femininity just because it doesn't conform to political stereotypes.
Since she was 15 years old, Fernández de Kirchner said, she had used a lot of makeup. "I love being a woman. I make myself up like any other woman, and it was always that way."