- - Thursday, August 2, 2012

BUENOS AIRES — Less than a year into her second term, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez is scrambling to rein in key party allies who already are jockeying to succeed her amid an increasingly dire fiscal situation.

The governors of the country’s two most populous provinces, both members of her Front for Victory, challenged Ms. Fernandez last month over missed federal payments.

But, unlike her Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chavez, who has driven insurgent governors out of his party, the Argentine leader has avoided an open break with Buenos Aires’ Daniel Scioli and Cordoba’s Jose Manuel de la Sota.

Ms. Fernandez initially refused to inject federal funds into Mr. Scioli’s cash-strapped province and scolded and mocked him during nationally televised events.

But in late July, the president changed course and approved a $132 million loan, helping the governor pay out vacation benefits and thus contain potentially crippling strikes by provincial workers.

Mr. Scioli was a vice president under Nestor Kirchner, Ms. Fernandez’s late husband and predecessor. He has done little to disguise his presidential ambitions. However, his lieutenant governor, Gabriel Mariotto, this week joined other hard-liners in the Front for Victory when he said that “many would sign up” to change the Argentine Constitution so that the term-limited Ms. Fernandez could run again in 2015.

Meanwhile, Mr. Scioli’s counterpart in Cordoba, the hub of Argentina’s bustling soy industry, this week sued the federal government for $227 million in pension funds that Mr. de la Sota claims it owes his province. He has stepped up his criticism of the president, ridiculing how the tight currency controls that Ms. Fernandez imposed this year compare with her liberal social agenda.

“It’s easier to get a sex-change certificate than to buy [U.S.] dollars,” the governor from the conservative heartland quipped, with a nod to gender-identity legislation that Ms. Fernandez signed in May. To buy dollars, “they might even ask you to show grandma’s smallpox vaccination.”

Argentina’s currency controls and its partial nationalization of the Spanish oil company YPF S.A. in May have underscored comparisons between Ms. Fernandez and Mr. Chavez, whose close ties were on display Monday as they celebrated Venezuela’s entry into the Mercosur trade bloc.

Though their policies may be similar, their politics are not, observers note.

Unlike Mr. Chavez, who in his 13 years in office has built strict hierarchical structures, Ms. Fernandez still needs to accommodate the interests of certain political power players and labor leaders, said Alejandro Groppo, head of the political science department at the Catholic University of Cordoba.

This might explain why her critics have escaped the fates of two Venezuelan governors: Jose Briceno of Monagas state and Henri Falcon of Lara state.

Mr. Briceno was suspended from the United Socialist Party in March after clashing with Diosdado Cabello, an army buddy of Mr. Chavez’s who now serves as speaker of the National Assembly.

Mr. Falcon left the voting bloc in 2010, insisting that the relationship between Mr. Chavez and his governors ought not be “limited to the issuing of instructions or orders.”

Mr. Chavez routinely goes after all political players with high aspirations, said Yorelis Acosta de Oliveira of the Institute of Political Studies at the Central University of Venezuela. Like Ms. Fernandez, he uses federal funds to keep his allies in check.

“He demands absolute loyalty for his political and economic support,” Ms. Acosta de Oliveira said. “Criticism is frowned upon within the Chavez movement.”

While Mr. Chavez will be on the ballot for the fourth time Oct. 7, Ms. Fernandez’s challengers need not worry that Argentines might follow in the footsteps of Venezuelans, who eliminated term limits in 2009. Such a move, Mr. Groppo said, is favored only by a “radicalized minority” within the Front for Victory, a wing of the Peronist party.

Unlike in Venezuela, the structure is more important than the leader, said Eduardo Aulicino, a political analyst for the Clarin newspaper.

“The Chavez movement depends on Chavez to exist, but the Peronist movement does not depend on Cristina to exist,” Mr. Aulicino said. It “will develop its own candidate beyond the president.”

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