Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Argentina's comeback president?

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was hugely unpopular among Argentines in 2009. But she is set to easily win reelection Sunday due to Argentina's economic rebound and weak opposition.

By , Contributor , Staff writer

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    Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (l.) is hugged by her daughter Florencia after hearing early results of a nationwide primary in August, which she won handily.
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Soon after taking office in 2007 in a first-round victory, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner began butting heads: first with grain exporters, then with the news media. Critics called her arrogant, stubborn, and a puppet of her husband.

That sentiment was reflected in midterm elections in 2009, during which her Peronist Party lost its absolute majority in both houses of Congress.

But now, two years later, Ms. Kirchner appears poised to once again easily regain the presidency when Argentines head to the polls on Sunday.

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What is behind her turnaround?

Argentina's economic rebound

Kirchner has certainly benefited from a solid economic run that means Argentines, spooked by the prospect of economic crises, feel better off than they did a year ago. She has created and expanded new social programs. She also faces a weak, fractured opposition.

And, perhaps most important, she was buoyed politically by the unexpected death of her husband, former President Nestor Kirchner, last year. Critics had claimed she made it to the presidency only on his coattails. With him gone, she not only has garnered sympathy but proved to many skeptics that she indeed knows how to run her own show.

"The economy started to recover. Then there was the death of Nestor, which had a strong impact because of its unexpectedness and turned Cristina into a widow one could sympathize with," says Federico Thomsen, a Buenos Aires-based economic and political analyst.

In 2008, less than a year after Kirchner assumed the presidency, she encountered massive protests when her government tried to increase taxes on grain exports. She eventually backed down, but it did not boost her political appeal. Battles with the media erupted, leading to claims she was censoring opponents. Later she slogged through an ongoing scandal over the veracity of national statistics on such measures as inflation, garnering her many critics like Alejandro Prud'homme, an industrial designer in Buenos Aires.

"There's more of a lack of free expression than in previous governments – those who don't like [the government's] way of thinking are generally cut off," he says.

Claims still swirl that she manipulates statistics and the media. But after the devastating midterm loss, a powerful antidote has emerged: the economy. The strength of trading partner Brazil, high commodities prices, and new markets in China have boosted Argentine budgets. With the windfall, Kirchner has invested more heavily in subsidies and social projects, like cash payments to poor mothers with kids. Unemployment is at 7.3 percent, its lowest level in 20 years.

"Everything Cristina has had to deal with have been tests that she overcame, and I think the population has noted this," says Gonzalo Rodríguez, an activist and Kirchner supporter. "She has transformed herself into a great political leader, and I think people realize this, even those who don't like her."

A divided opposition

Like many countries in Latin America, the opposition in Argentina has been unable to unite and field a viable alternative to the incumbent. In primaries in August, Kirchner was the clear front-runner, and polls leading up to the Oct. 23 election showed she could gain more than 50 percent of the vote this month. To win in the first round, a candidate needs 45 percent of the vote or more than 40 percent and be 10 points ahead of the closest contender.

"The opposition wasted the opportunity handed to it by the people," says election monitor Javier Tejerizo. "In the last two years, they haven't achieved anything substantial in Congress and have splintered through internal fighting."

But Kirchner's opposition says she has just been fortunate to preside during good times, and that troubling signs are on the horizon, including a weakening economy and government policies that are not focused on long-term growth.

"We're growing only on the back of commodities exports – and soy in particular," says Miguel Bazze, an opposition candidate for the national legislature. "Hopefully this will last many decades. But when a country is growing economically, one has to take advantage of the situation by diversifying the economy."

Out of her husband's shadow

When Kirchner came to power immediately after her husband's administration, critics said the two aimed to rule back to back indefinitely, since presidents cannot run for a third term but can become candidates again if they step out for one cycle. But with Mr. Kirchner out of the picture, those fears have been allayed.

More important, many say, by presiding alone she has been more open to compromise. Even though Nestor Kirchner is widely credited for steering Argentina out of its 2001-02 economic crisis, his combative style won him many enemies.

Mark Jones, an expert on Argentina at Rice University in Houston, says Ms. Kirch­ner lost support because her husband had so many foes. "Nestor's passing allowed Cristina to break out of his confrontational type of politics," he says.

Some, like Pascual Vallejo, have been fans all along. Before, he says, "the country suffered a lot – too much. Now, with Cristina, there's work, there's health care – a bit of everything with her."

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