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In Argentine Campaign, Evita Lives On

First ladies are taking lead roles in today's Senate race, which has turned into a proxy battle between new and traditional Peronism.

October 23, 2005|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — The larger battle may be over the future of Peronism, but it's the fight between the first ladies that has grabbed the headlines as Argentines go to the polls today.

The mud-slinging campaign closed last week in an eleventh-hour frenzy of verbal volleys, with President Nestor Kirchner saying he would be "a prisoner of vested interests" during his remaining two years in office if his slate does not win big in the midterm legislative elections.

The most high-profile race by far is the Senate contest featuring his outspoken wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner -- who has not discouraged comparisons to the country's most famous first lady, the late Eva Peron -- and Hilda "Chiche" Gonzalez de Duhalde, the wife of a former president.

The Senate race has in effect become a proxy battle between Kirchner and former President Eduardo Duhalde over their competing visions for Peronism, a complex political movement blending social justice, a tightly controlled economy and a strong centralized government that has been the dominant political force here for much of the last six decades.

In general, Kirchner has been trying to reach out to non-Peronist elements, especially on the left, and redefine Peronism according to the vision of his "Victory Front" party. That vision is a bit fuzzy, but some have compared his goal to the center-left coalition that governs neighboring Chile.

Duhalde's strength lies in the traditional Peronist appeal to the working class, government-linked unions and other sectors firmly beneath the Peronist banner. Kirchner is gambling he can push aside the traditional wing led by Duhalde.

Once allies beneath the broad Peronist umbrella, Kirchner and Duhalde have emerged as bitter rivals with varying visions of the movement created by former leader Juan Peron. Neither of the two factions slugging it out may win a clear victory today, an outcome that would probably auger fierce legislative battles during the final two years of Kirchner's term.

At stake today are half of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, and about a third of the Senate slates, along with numerous local races.

The president's slate seems likely to benefit from the nation's steady recovery from the economic meltdown of 2001 and 2002, a calamity that left millions of once-middle-class Argentines near destitute.

Argentina today is a place where former President Clinton's campaign mantra -- "It's the economy, stupid!" -- echoes deeply. Every cabdriver seems to have a tale about losing savings, a good job and most everything else during the years of the crash. The nation's psyche remains frail.

"I am a Peronist, but these fights within the party don't interest me at all," said Angel Horacio Marrone, a 45-year-old industrial worker who appeared at a rally on behalf of the president's wife last week in the rural community of Chivilcoy. "Kirchner just represents us better now."

The president's critics say his regime is no cleaner than that of his predecessors, and they accuse him and his wife of a power grab: Cristina Fernandez is an admirer of Hillary Rodham Clinton and considered a likely presidential contender once her husband leaves office. A sitting senator from a southern province, she is running for a seat in the much more politically crucial province of Buenos Aires.

As with the Clintons, it is often said here that Fernandez is the power behind the presidency. She is a powerful speaker whose voice became raspy in appearances at the end of the long campaign. She seldom grants interviews to the Argentine media and developed a reputation as a scrappy and strong-willed legislator. She hasn't been bashful about her aspirations.

"I absolutely do not believe anyone in politics who says they don't have ambition -- that's tremendous hypocrisy," Fernandez told the Spanish daily El Pais earlier this year. "The political fight is the fight for power. The important thing is why one wants power, and what one wants to do with it."

In fact, both Fernandez and her rival, Hilda Gonzalez, are likely to gain senate seats under the nation's proportional representation system, which awards senatorial slots to both the victorious party and the runner up.

But political experts will be closely monitoring the margin of Fernandez's anticipated victory for signs of whether new or traditional Peronism will emerge triumphant.

On the campaign trail, Fernandez and her husband dispense with the traditional symbols of Peronism and seldom invoke the former president or his wife. Instead, they point to achievements of the last two years under the Kirchner government, gains that critics say are highly inflated.

"We have begun to recuperate our dignity," Fernandez told a crowd last week at a gymnasium outside of the capital.

But her opponent unabashedly embraced Peronism and all its symbols.

At the site of Gonzalez's campaign closeout last week, two huge photos of Juan and Eva Peron graced the walls. At the end of the ceremony, shouts of "Viva Peron!" and "Viva Evita!" echoed through the crowd. There was much hope the old formula would work its wonders again.

Times researcher Andres D'Alessandro contributed to this report.

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