Argentina enters new political era as Kirchner dies

Tens of thousands of Argentines paid tribute to Nestor Kirchner, the powerful former leader whose death robbed President Cristina Fernandez of her husband and most trusted ally.

Buenos Aires: Tens of thousands of Argentines paid tribute on Thursday to Nestor Kirchner, the powerful former leader whose death robbed President Cristina Fernandez of her husband and most trusted ally.

Kirchner, 60, was widely seen as the most influential figure in his wife`s government, which has maintained the same statist economic measures that supporters say helped lift the country out of the doldrums after a 2001-2002 crisis.

The combative Kirchner was widely expected to run for a second term in a presidential election next October. His death increases the possibility that Fernandez, who has higher approval ratings than her late husband, will seek re-election.

Financial markets rallied on news of Kirchner`s death from a heart attack on Wednesday. Investors had seen Kirchner as unfriendly to business. But his departure from Argentina`s polarized political scene heightens uncertainties before the 2011 vote.

Analysts say Fernandez -- who, like her husband is known for antagonizing business leaders and pushing policies that frustrate investors -- could change tack and adopt a more conciliatory approach in a bid to garner broader support.

But she will likely maintain the couple`s intimate circle of advisers and Kirchner`s death could boost her approval ratings as voters recall the boom years of his 2003-2007 presidency when South America`s No. 2 economy expanded rapidly.

Long into the night, supporters waving the blue-and-white national flag and banners carrying messages of support gathered in front of the presidential palace, where regional leaders and political figures were due to attend a wake on Thursday.

"We must show solidarity in the coming days so that the opposition doesn`t take advantage of this moment," said Roberto Picozze, 25, one of thousands of people who turned out to express support for the powerful couple after staying home all day as a national census was carried out.

Although local financial markets were closed for the national census holiday on Wednesday, prices for Argentine bonds and stocks traded overseas firmed on bets Fernandez would take a more moderate line in her dealings with local companies and foreign investors.

Argentina, a leading agricultural exporter, has benefited from a boom in commodities prices since the economic debacle nine years ago, but critics reviled Kirchner`s interventionist economic policies and said he failed to put Argentine on a path toward sustainable growth or tackle high inflation.

Opponents of the presidential couple bristled at their outspoken attacks on big business, journalists and political rivals.

When farmers rebelled over a tax hike on soy exports in 2008, the center-left Kirchner accused them of plotting a coup, and he increased state control over the economy, nationalizing several companies.

Financial markets never forgave him for the tough 2005 renegotiation of some $100 billion in defaulted bonds, which stuck creditors with a steep discount. He was also an outspoken critic of the International Monetary Fund.

A member of the dominant Peronist party, Kirchner built strong alliances as president that won him solid backing while also steering the party to the left and courting regional leftists like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Chavez will attend his funeral, along with regional leaders such as Chile`s conservative president, Sebastian Pinera, and Brazil`s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

At the presidential palace, the national flag flew at half-staff and supporters tied roses and messages to the railings, some reading: "Thank you Nestor." Graffiti on the wall of a bank read: "Hang in there Cristina."

Fernandez`s approval ratings hover at about 35 percent, too low to suggest she could win a first-round victory in the next presidential vote.

Opposition leaders paid tribute to Kirchner`s political savvy but could feel emboldened by the departure of the influential political power broker and likely 2011 presidential candidate.

Bureau Report

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