BUENOS AIRES — Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, whose first two years as president were marred by protests and tumbling ratings, made a dramatic turnaround on the back of Argentina’s fast-growing economy and scored a landslide reelection victory Sunday, according to early official returns.
With the economy having grown 9 percent last year, Fernandez de Kirchner crushed a fractured opposition that fielded six opponents, all of whom trailed her by at least 35 percentage points. With 53 percent of Argentines voting for her, according to exit polls, Fernandez de Kirchner’s margin of victory is the widest in a presidential election since democracy replaced a brutal military dictatorship in 1983.
The victory was seen as a mandate for Fernandez de Kirchner, 58, to continue unorthodox economic policies rooted in heavy state spending while paying little heed to bondholders trying to collect billions of dollars in unpaid debt.
“With what’s happening in the world, you have to feel very proud,” she said as she was mobbed by supporters after casting her vote in the Patagonian provincial city of Rio Gallegos. “After a lifetime of pushing those ideas, we now see that they were not a mistake and that we are on the right path.”
As she frequently reminds Argentines, her policies are the same as those of her late husband and predecessor in the presidency, Nestor Kirchner. He took office in 2003, a year after Argentina had descended into economic calamity upon its $100 billion sovereign debt default, the largest in history.
Buoyed by a sharp and sustained demand from China and elsewhere for soy and other Argentine agricultural products, the economy grew at an annual average of 7.6 percent over the past eight years. Kirchner and then his wife, after taking office in 2007, used the windfall to fund cash transfers to poor families, energy subsidies and other social programs.
Economists in Argentina say Fernandez de Kirchner’s government has also resorted to doctoring inflation figures, so the official numbers do not reflect the 25 to 30 percent annual rise recorded by private economists. The government has also defiantly fought off lawsuits and other claims from disgruntled creditors chasing down money that is owed to them, which has led to increasing friction with the Obama administration and multinational lenders.
Economists and opposition politicians here say that the government’s high-spending ways, coupled with a world economic slowdown, could catch up with Argentina, a country familiar with cyclical booms and busts.
“We’re happily dancing on the Titanic,” said one of Fernandez de Kirchner’s challengers, Eduardo Duhalde, who preceded her husband as president.
But the government counters that it is putting Argentines and national sovereignty ahead of international creditors and Washington-based institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
Indeed, in speech after speech, the president says her government is looking out for the average Argentine in a way that past governments have not.
This “president is president of 40 million Argentines, and our policies will always be ones of social inclusion and the defense of the most vulnerable,” Fernandez de Kirchner said in her closing campaign speech last week.
Daniel Peralta, the governor of Santa Cruz, Nestor Kirchner’s home province and the place where Fernandez de Kirchner started her political career, said the political duo succeeded where others had failed by following a nationalistic model developed by Argentina’s 1950s-era strongman, Juan Peron.
The model is based on a strong state role in the economy, policies designed to spur internal manufacturing, and pro-labor measures such as subsidies and high wage increases. “What she is doing now is exactly what Peron would have done,” Peralta said in an interview.
Fernandez de Kirchner enjoys a popularity rating that tops 60 percent. At the start of her presidency, though, she was mired in controversy and bitter political battles, which left her and Kirchner, who was at her side as a de facto vice president, weakened.
The discovery of a suitcase entering Argentina on a flight from Venezuela with $800,000 led to accusations that the money was a campaign gift from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an ally of Fernandez de Kirchner. More damaging was an angry and sustained tussle with Argentina’s powerful agricultural sector in 2008, which led to protests and paralyzed production after her government raised taxes on soy exports.
Then the nationalization of private pension funds frightened Argentines, who worried that the government would spend the money. Fernandez de Kirchner’s popularity rating tumbled to 20 percent, and the government lost control of the National Congress in 2009 as the economy flagged.
But economic growth rebounded last year.
Then, last October, Nestor Kirchner died of a heart attack. That started a wave of sympathy that helped Fernandez de Kirchner rise steadily in the polls. Throughout her campaign, the president dressed in black, cried frequently and repeatedly extolled Kirchner’s policies, stressing that she would continue to follow them closely.
Marcelo Murua, 38, was among those who strongly supported Fernandez de Kirchner, saying that her policies have offered a sharp break with a past that was harmful to ordinary Argentines.
“We were without work. The education system was not working. There was no justice or equality,” he said. “Now there is work, and we are fighting for education for all, for a government that represents us all.”