Wednesday, July 11, 2007

BUENOS AIRES — Hillary Rodham Clinton isn’t the only first lady turned senator who is running for president.

Argentine President Nestor Kirchner says he will forgo an almost certain re-election to support the presidential candidacy of his wife, Sen. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

“Why shouldn’t it be a woman?” Mr. Kirchner asked as he announced last week that he would step aside after one term in office and let his wife run for president in the Oct. 28 election.

“Cristina,” as Mrs. Kirchner is popularly known, is far ahead of the nation’s fractured opposition, with 45 percent of potential voters supporting her, according to an Ipsos poll released last week.

That is 35 points higher than former Economy and Production Minister Roberto Lavagna, her closest rival among several candidates, including former President Carlos Menem.

Mrs. Kirchner’s candidacy is expected to benefit from Argentina’s continued economic recovery, with annual growth expected to top 8 percent for the fifth consecutive year.

Even with the latest polls, however, Mrs. Kirchner’s election is far from certain.

In Argentina, which had five presidents in less than two weeks during the lowest point of its 2002 economic meltdown, anything can happen.

Mr. Lavagna, who served as economy minister until 2005, gets much of the credit for the rebound.

Moreover, polls show growing voter discontent with double-digit inflation and energy shortages that bedevil the nation as winter grips the Southern Hemisphere.

Both issues are likely to boil over before the election, which some analysts say could push Mrs. Kirchner below the threshold needed to avoid a runoff with the second-place candidate.

“The government is deliberately keeping energy prices low to win the vote,” said Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Argentina also has frozen utility prices since the peso was devalued more than 60 percent in 2001 and has done little to invest in alternative energy sources or to welcome foreign investors.

“They can’t go on keeping energy prices frozen,” said Mr. Roett. “They will have to level the playing field, do something about inflation and make peace with [foreign] debt.”

The costs of goods and services to Argentines has risen higher than salaries.

“Who sees the growth? Not me. I’m the middle class,” said Claudia Soto, 27, a computer programmer in Buenos Aires who says she will vote for a minority party candidate.

“I don’t think all the political and economic power should be concentrated, so the votes need to go somewhere else,” she said.

Argentina’s once-strong middle class was devastated by the 2001-02 crisis.

“This administration has the same distribution of resources as in the 1990s, a period whose policies it criticizes so much,” said Diego DeLuca, 26, a businessman from the capital.

“If [Mrs. Kirchner] were to dedicate herself to confronting the principal problems of the country, then improving workers’ quality of life and health care in the lowest sectors would be her strategy.”

Many analysts see an opportunity for change with a Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner presidency.

“Politics in Latin America is changing and opening as some of the old barriers are breaking down. That’s a sign of strengthening democracy,” said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.

“She is someone who is a little bit more worldly than [Mr. Kirchner] is; she has traveled and would try to improve the country’s international image.”

Mrs. Kirchner, 54, is to officially announce her candidacy on July 19.

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