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The World

Argentina gets ready for a first

President Kirchner's wife, a veteran politician, is poised to succeed him in office.

August 30, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — All this first lady talk is getting a bit tiresome for Argentina's first lady.

"I didn't get into politics because I'm the wife of the president," Sen. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner told the Spanish daily El Pais, with apparent exasperation.

Polls and analysts point to the elegant and feisty Fernandez as the prohibitive favorite to succeed her husband in Argentina's Oct. 28 presidential election.

After months of conjecture about whether President Nestor Kirchner would step down, she was officially anointed the candidate of the ruling Victory Front last month. Kirchner thus became the rare president, in Latin America and most anyplace else, who passed on near-certain reelection.

The Kirchners draw support for having guided Argentina through four years of robust growth and stability, following the nation's economic meltdown of 2001-02. A fragmented opposition has contributed to a sense that a Fernandez victory is inevitable, despite recent corruption scandals, an energy crisis and ruling party electoral setbacks.

The Kirchner power team dominates here in way that the Clintons, the couple they're often compared to, could never match in the United States. The administration has overwhelmed congressional opposition, bullied the media and expanded influence over the courts.

"There is no equivalent of the Republican Party to oppose the Kirchners," said Sergio Berenzstein, a political analyst.

Critics say the Kirchners share an autocratic streak and deep mistrust of the press. Fernandez, 54, is inevitably described as hot-tempered and controlling, much like her irascible husband, who was elected president in 2003.

She would become Argentina's first female elected president, and South America's second sitting female president, joining Chile's Michelle Bachelet.

Fernandez has long been a political force, a departure from the image of first ladies who hold charity events and stand by their men. She extols the still-revered former first lady Eva Peron, with her "thrusting fist in front of microphone."

But parallels are drawn less often to working-class icon Evita than to poised and calculating lawmaker Hillary Clinton.

Like Clinton, Fernandez met her future husband while both were law students. And, like the Clintons, the Kirchners first established a base in the husband's home region, in this case the southern province of Santa Cruz, in Patagonia, where Kirchner was governor.

But Fernandez's passage from the Senate to the Pink House, the rose-colored Argentine presidential residence, should be less taxing than Hillary Clinton's quest.

Whereas Clinton must endure a bruising primary, Fernandez glided in as the standard-bearer of the governing Peronist movement, now dominated by the Kirchners. As first lady, Fernandez has served as a glamorous ambassador at large, heading official delegations in recent months to Geneva, Paris, Madrid and Mexico City.

"She likes being photographed in foreign parts," noted James Neilson, a columnist for the newsmagazine Noticias.

Even critics acknowledge her fluid, extemporaneous speaking style, a stark contrast to her husband's wooden oratory.

Her apparent interest in foreign affairs has sparked some hope for a thaw in U.S.-Argentine relations, which are at a low point. Kirchner has hardly concealed his distaste for international diplomacy, except for his kinship with leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

"There's a sense that the U.S. could have a little more productive relationship with Cristina than with her husband," said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.

But Fernandez recently championed Chavez as being essential to regional energy needs, prompting a warm thank you from the Venezuelan leader.

"How brave is Cristina!" he gushed. "How loyal is Cristina!"

Her prospective transformation to Señora Presidenta has focused attention on the "Cristina look." Rumors of botox and other treatments have swirled. Experts analyze her wardrobe, cosmetics, hair color, high heels and most everything else.

"She is a woman who has good eyes and a good mouth, but she always makes herself up in a way that looks artificial," lamented Regina Kuligovski, a beautician consulted by La Nacion newspaper. "A pity."

Both Kirchners are leftist populists, their political formation a product of the turbulent 1970s. The couple lay low in Patagonia during Argentina's 1976-83 military rule.

Fernandez likes to point out that her political career, unlike Hillary Clinton's, began well before her husband became president.

She was elected to the Senate in the 1990s while her husband was virtually unknown in Buenos Aires. She soon became a ubiquitous rebel, launching diatribes against then-President Carlos Menem, a right-wing Peronist.

But her husband's provincial political base provided Fernandez with crucial initial support. His presidency has cleared the way for her to succeed him.

"Without the backing of her husband," said Berenzstein, the political analyst, "Cristina would never have risen as she did."

--

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Andrés D'Alessandro of The Times' Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.

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