Argentina gets set to elect its 'Hillary'

First lady Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is expected to win Sunday's presidential vote.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

She met her husband in law school, launched her career at his side, then played an active role as first lady during his presidency. Now, she is poised to step into his shoes.

No, this is not Hillary Clinton.

Meet Sen. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the front-runner in Argentina's presidential race.

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Ms. Fernández, nicknamed "Queen Cristina" for her feistiness and penchant for designer clothes, is not adored. But many analysts say Sunday's election will be a vote of confidence for President Nestor Kirchner, who is widely seen as leading Argentina out of the 2002 economic meltdown that impoverished many Argentines.

Like Sen. Clinton, Fernández would be the first woman voted into the presidency in her country, and one of only a few to have led in the region, including Michelle Bachelet in neighboring Chile. But in a country still shocked by its worst economic crisis in history, few Argentines are not voting for radical change: they want continuity from the "Clintons" of South America.

Some have embraced her fight for human rights, her international outlook, the economic policies the Kirchners espouse, and the mere fact that she is a woman, says Agustin Salvia, a sociologist at the Catholic University of Argentina. But the vast majority of her support comes from the poor, many of whom lost their jobs during the crisis and have found their economic foothold again – a turnaround for which they thank the Kirchners. "They have seen their economic situation improve, and they want it to continue," he says.

Fernández is expected to win Sunday's race in the first round. To do so, a candidate needs 45 percent of the vote, or 40 percent with a 10-point lead. Most polls show Fernández with more than 40 percent against a fractured opposition. The two closest runners, ex-congresswoman Elisa Carrio and former Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna, both lag by more than 20 points. The winner assumes office Dec. 10.

Fernández, who grew up in a middle-class family and is a veteran lawyer and politician, comes from Argentina's famed Peronist Party, as does her husband. The two established their base in the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, where Kirchner was governor, but she carved out her own reputation as a lawyer and legislator. To her supporters, she is an intellectual force and articulate speaker, committed to social justice and human rights; to her critics, she is obstinate and temperamental, riding on the coattails of her husband's success.

A more international outlook?

José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, says that her commitment to fighting impunity and constitutional reform has been obvious since she became a legislator. "Cristina Fernández, in my view, is going to add something new to Argentina," says Mr. Vivanco. On crises both in the region and as far away as Darfur, he expects more participation from Argentina. "In meeting her, it was obvious how interested she was in learning about foreign relations, and how curious intellectually she was about serious problems in this region, as well as others."

Many have drawn comparisons to Eva Peron, Argentina's legendary first lady whom the masses adored, but observers say she has been more enthusiastic about the "Hillary" comparison. While she fights for social justice, she is also a strong advocate of private investment.

Today, she is a senator for the province of Buenos Aires, and likes to point out that, unlike Hillary Clinton, she was a senator before her husband became president.

In a recent interview with Time magazine, when asked whether comparisons to Hillary Clinton were valid, she spoke of the strengths women bring to the job: "I think our style of argumentation is similar in the sense that women today bring a different face to politics. We're culturally formed to be citizens of two worlds, public and private. We're wrapped up as much in what our daughters' school principal says as we are in what the newspapers are saying – we see the big geopolitical picture but also the smaller daily details of our citizens' lives."

Many of the parallels she shares with Senator Clinton, however, end largely with their résumés. While Clinton faces a slog a year before the US election, the cafes and streets of Buenos Aires are devoid of politics and posters. Clinton still faces a tough primary, while Fernández was tapped by her husband to lead the party.

The 'Kirchner package'

Analysts say that she lacks charisma and connection with many voters, but that they are voting for the Kirchner "package." "People are voting for Cristina to give thanks to Nestor Kirchner," says Jorge Giacobbe, an independent political analyst in Buenos Aires. "With him they did well, so they think with her they will do well, too; the momentum of confidence is still with the Kirchners."

The idea of a "package" is precisely what alienates some, however. Critics have speculated that Kirchner, who is more popular than his wife, stepped aside this year so that he could return in the future. Under Argentine law, presidents can serve unlimited terms if they are not consecutive. "It is the continuation of the Kirchner dynasty that is most concerning to most Argentines," says Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies in Washington.

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