Tough task for Argentina's 'Hillary'

First lady Cristina Fernández de Kirchner won Argentina's presidential election Sunday, but she will soon face rising inflation and looming energy shortages.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

First lady Cristina Fernández de Kirchner easily won Argentina's presidential race Sunday, launching a political dynasty not seen here since the days of Juan and Evita Perón.

President Néstor Kirchner is widely hailed for shepherding Argentina out of its economic crisis in 2001. Since then, he has overseen extraordinary economic expansion that has pushed poverty rates down from half the population five years ago to one-quarter today.

Voters want the same from Ms. Fernández, a veteran lawyer and senator. But analysts say the policies of her husband's administration – including price controls, energy subsidies, and generous public spending – could be the very formula that undermines hers. Already energy shortages and rising prices loom.

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"She is going to have a much tougher time than Néstor," says Mark Jones, an associate political science professor at Rice University who advises the US government on Argentinean affairs. "She is not taking over at the best time. The energy crisis is real. The inflation crisis is real."

The problems that some see on the horizon were not large enough to sway many voters, who often cite security and jobs as their top concerns. On the campaign trail, Fernández barely mentioned inflation, while one of her main opponents, former economy minister Roberto Lavagna, made "Stop Inflation," his campaign slogan.

'Greater obligations'

"We have won amply," Fernández said during a victory speech Sunday night. "But this, far from putting us in a position of privilege, puts us instead in a position of greater responsibilities and obligations."

The Kirchners – dubbed the "Clintons of South America" – have moved to limit concerns about the economy, saying that inflation and energy deficits are byproducts of growth and can be solved with more investment.

Fernández has garnered attention for wooing foreign investors while revealing little about her platform other than to say she will "deepen the change" her husband spurred.

But many observers have their doubts about how strong the economy really is. The most immediate concern may be energy. Subsidies that keep energy costs low for consumers have led to shortages, and some fear brownouts, even blackouts, by next year. Fernández has said little about how she will tackle any looming energy shortages.

The most complex problem, however, is inflation. Not only are prices vexing some consumers, the official rate of 8 to 10 percent has been widely discredited by the opposition and independent economists.

For Osvaldo Giordano, an economist at the Argentinean Institute of Social Development in Buenos Aires, the incongruence between the official numbers and economists' estimates that place the figure between 15 and 20 percent is a clear sign that the Kirchner policies can't work in the long run. "It's a manifestation of their political inconstancy," he says.

Economists began to question official numbers by the National Statistics Institute after President Kirchner replaced civil servants this winter, which he says was to improve the efficacy of the system. Fernández, on the campaign trail, has supported the validity of the statistics. But doubts are rampant. "Their number is not believed by anybody," says Federico Thomsen, an economic analyst in Buenos Aires. "Not even many people in the government believe it; it's become a joke."

Inflation woes

Rising prices have led to consumer boycotts – most recently of tomatoes. The Kirchner administration has been able to keep unrest at bay by working with the private sector, pleading with supermarkets, for example, to temporarily cut prices, but many say these are only short-term solutions. "She will not be able to do that for four years," Mr. Thomsen says. "It's OK to contain things for two or three weeks before an election. This is becoming a growing concern for the population."

Many voters say their pocketbooks are taking a hit, and it is the poor – from whom the Kirchners draw most of their support – who are being hit hardest.

Cecilia Rodriguez, a retired seamstress in Misiones Province in northeastern Argentina, says prices have squeezed her budget, and she rarely thinks of eating out anymore. She says she saw in the Kirchners' the former days of Juan Perón, who came to power in 1946 and inspired the "shirtless ones."

"Then we all had jobs and could eat. I thought the Kirchners were the same," Ms. Rodriguez says. "There are people starving on the streets, and [the Kirchners] are flying all over the world."

But Diego Ramirez, a driver in the northeastern city of Puerto Iguazú, says that what matters is that people have jobs again. "He has done good things," he says. "So will she."

Some say this sense of expectation could work against Fernández. "She comes in at a very difficult moment," says Jorge Giacobbe, an independent analyst in Buenos Aires. When Kirchner took office the country was still shocked from the crisis. "People were silent and scared, and they listened to him. Now we are in a different situation," he says. "There is not the same fear or silence."

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