Argentine president strolls to re-election win

BUENOS AIRES,  (Reuters) – Argentina’s fiery centre-leftist president, Cristina Fernandez, swept to a  landslide re-election victory  yesterday, crowning a comeback  that seemed unthinkable for much of her turbulent first term.

Cristina Fernandez

An exit poll showed Fernandez winning with 55 percent of  the vote, about 40 percentage points ahead of her nearest  rival, Socialist Hermes Binner.

No Argentine leader has won such a big share of the vote since Gen. Juan Domingo Peron was elected with 62 percent in  1973, and Fernandez’s supporters celebrated in downtown Buenos  Aires, waving blue-and-white flags and chanting.

If confirmed by official results, the scale of Fernandez’s  victory would give her a strong mandate to deepen the  unconventional and interventionist economic policies that play  well with many voters but irritate investors and farmers.

It marks a dramatic change of fortunes for a leader who  some critics once said might have to leave power early as angry  protests by farmers and middle-class voters battered her  approval ratings soon after she took office.

When her husband and predecessor as president, Nestor  Kirchner, died a year ago, many thought it spelled the end of  the couple’s idiosyncratic blend of state intervention,  nationalist rhetoric and the championing of human rights.

Instead, it prompted a wave of nostalgia for the best years  of Kirchner’s 2003-2007 presidency and sympathy for a woman who  suddenly seemed more likable.

A skilled orator fond of glamorous clothes and make-up,  Fernandez still wears black as she mourns her husband and  closest advisor. His image featured heavily in her campaign.

A splintered opposition and brisk economic growth helped  Fernandez turn the sympathy vote into solid support.

Despite double-digit inflation and other signs of strain as  global conditions worsen, Argentina’s economy is growing at  about 8 percent a year and has regained some of its glory as  the “breadbasket of the world” as grains shipments rise.  Unemployment is at a 20-year low.

Voters with memories of the hyperinflation of the late  1980s and a severe economic crisis 10 years ago have good  reason to think things could be worse than they are today.

“Crises come and go here and instability’s exhausting  because you make plans and they keep going to waste,” said  Marta Rey, 50, a teacher who voted for Fernandez’s Peronist  party for the first time on Sunday. “It gives me a certain  security for my son and for the future.”

Fernandez’s supporters highlight progress on expanding  pensions coverage, child welfare benefits and the construction  of schools and homes.

HEAVY-HANDED      

The scale of Fernandez’s victory belies fierce opposition  to her combative, heavy-handed style — typical of the Peronist  party that has dominated Argentine politics for decades.

“It’s a complete mess … the corruption, the inflation,  lies, authoritarianism. We’ve got used to living like this,”  said Juan Tofalo, 43, a newspaper vendor in Buenos Aires.

Allegations of corruption and murky dealings have stalked  the government for years, although there have been no  convictions.

A recent crackdown on economists whose inflation estimates  double the official rate of a discredited state statistics  agency is typical of Fernandez’s controversial methods, who  some critics say resemble those of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

Businesses are routinely strong-armed into price control  agreements — her main weapon against surging prices — and  deals to increase their exports as the trade surplus dwindles.

When a leading newspaper and cable news channel owned by  the Grupo Clarin conglomerate criticized her handling of the  farm revolt, Fernandez hit back. The company was stripped of a  key operating license and “Clarin Lies” posters appeared across  the capital.

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