High stakes for the 'ruling couple' in Argentina's election

Former president Nestor Kirchner is running for a congressional seat in a bid to boost his sagging popularity, turning the election into a referendum on him and his wife, President Cristina Kirchner.

When Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner succeeded her husband Nestor Kirchner, as Argentina's president in 2007, detractors warned of a scenario in which she and her husband would endlessly rotate in and out of the executive office, creating a virtual dynasty in Argentina.

Now that storyline seems part of an outdated narrative.

Case in point: In what is widely considered a bid to buoy the couple's sagging popularity, the former president has entered the race for a congressional seat in midterm elections Sunday, and in doing so, has turned a sleepy legislative affair into a plebiscite on the couple and one of the highest-stakes races in recent history.

"We are facing the end of the Kirchner era," says Jorge Giacobbe, a pollster in Buenos Aires.

Mr. Kirchner, who shepherded Argentina out of its devastating financial crisis of 2001-2002, enjoyed high approval ratings throughout his entire term.

Now, his wife's Peronist administration is in trouble. Ms. Kirchner's approval ratings have plummeted as low as 25 percent.

Congressional bid could backfire

But Mr. Kirchner's gamble to run for office could backfire. Polls leading up to the race, in which he is seeking a seat in the province of Buenos Aires, the most important electoral race with more than 30 percent of eligible voters, show he is neck-and-neck with a political newcomer named Francisco De Narvaez, a multimillionaire who heads a ticket of candidates from a dissident faction of the Peronist party.

A loss, or even a slim victory margin for the candidate list he heads, could not only dash Mr. Kirchner's hopes for a 2011 presidential bid, but could weaken his influence within the Peronist party for the remainder of his wife's term, after the couple has dominated the political scene for the past six years.

"By exposing himself like that, he risks a lot. If he were to lose, that would be very bad for him and his future outlook," says Federico Thomsen, a political and economic analyst in Buenos Aires.

The ruling party also faces the prospect of losing influence nationally. Half of the seats in the lower house of Congress are up for grabs, as are a third of Senate seats. Mr. Giacobbe says Kirchner allies are expected to lose seats in both, making it tougher to pass legislation.

In Argentina's proportional system, candidates run as part of a list, and parties are allocated seats based on their overall share of votes.

The election was moved up from October to June – a move many say was an attempt to put time on the Kirchners' side. "Their logic was, the economy will be doing better in June and October, so we should run them earlier," says Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.

Mr. Kirchner has warned that a vote against him is a return to the past, and that legislative gridlock could be disastrous for the economy, which faces challenges in a drop in soy prices and the global financial crisis. Last month, he was quoted as saying "jobs will vanish, the poor will fall, a frightening past will return."

Their supporters have taken the message to heart, and say that the president is being harshly judged at a time when few could govern well.

"She is losing support but most of it is not her fault," says Daniel Alberto Sanchez, a valet in Buenos Aires. "The Kirchners are the only ones fighting for the workers."

Ms. Kirchner won the presidency in October 2007 with 45 percent of the vote, but her popularity quickly diminished, after a fierce confrontation with farmers over export taxes on grains that turned rowdy, and which she ultimately lost.

While her husband ruled under economic expansion and surging soy prices, Ms. Kirchner has faced the global downturn and plummeting commodities prices. A severe drought has also damaged the farming sector. And a combative style has not earned her devoted fans.

"[Mr. Kirchner] is not especially charismatic, but managed to get popularity in the best of times," says Mr. Thomsen. "She is much less so, and with things less good because of the international economy, her style is not as easy to overlook."

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