Buenos Aires: Argentina's center-left President Cristina Fernandez was favored to win re-election on Sunday in a vote that will test her mandate to deepen policies hated by big business but loved by many average Argentines.
Helped by an economy growing at about 8 percent per year and a field of feeble opposition candidates, pre-election opinion polls showed the combative 58-year-old leader winning with enough votes to avoid a runoff.
This would give her a mandate to continue policies that have riled pro-market farmers and business leaders while locking in the support of voters helped by her generous spending on programs for poor families and the elderly.
"I don't like Cristina's political style but thanks to her I could retire," 74-year-old Ana Rossi told Reuters as she left her polling station in a Buenos Aires suburb. "It's out of gratitude that I voted for her."
Fernandez may also regain the control of Congress she lost in the 2009 mid-term election.
The sharp-tongued former senator has nationalized private pension funds, raised taxes on soy exports and kept quotas on wheat and corn shipments. Growers say such interventionist measures dampen much-needed investment in agriculture, Argentina's top source of hard currency.
The president was swarmed by followers as she voted in her home province of Santa Cruz. She defended her policies as having led to solid growth at a time of global turmoil.
"When you look at what's happening in the world, you can feel very proud to be Argentine," Fernandez, dressed in black and her hair tinted red, told reporters just after casting her ballot at a voting station set up in a local school.
She won more than 50 percent of the vote in an August primary election that served as a giant opinion poll because all parties had already chosen their candidates.
Surveys say she has since widened her lead. The combative 58-year-old leader has made a dramatic comeback from low approval ratings that had dogged much of her first term.
To win re-election on Sunday, Fernandez needs at least 45 percent of the vote or just 40 percent with a lead of 10 percentage points over her closest rival.
Fernandez vows to dedicate her second term to the memory of her husband, Nestor Kirchner, who preceded her as president and whose 2010 death sparked a wave of sympathy. "Strength Cristina!" became her supporters' rallying cry.
Kirchner is credited by many for getting Argentina's economy on its feet after a 2001/02 financial crisis. Fernandez plans to "deepen" their economic model in her second term.
Fernandez often tears up when speaking about "him," not needing to say Kirchner's name for people to understand. She visited his grave on Saturday to help prepare an October 27 ceremony marking one year since his death.
An elegant dresser with a taste for high heels, Fernandez had approval ratings of about 20 percent in 2008, when a long-running feud with farmers exploded in huge protests. Profits driven by high grains prices have since calmed growers and many rural areas voted for her in the primary.
Twenty-four Senate seats are up for grabs on Sunday and 130 seats in the lower house. Most political analysts expect Fernandez to win back congressional control.
Speculation has grown that Fernandez may try to reform the constitution to allow her to run again in 2015. The constitution can be changed only with a two-thirds majority.
Other South American leaders -- from Colombia to Ecuador to Venezuela -- have changed laws to allow them more time in power. Simply keeping the option open could allow Fernandez to avoid becoming a "lame duck" in her second term.
"Keeping alive the possibility of a constitutional reform, while controversial, is a sound strategy to preserve power," said Ignacio Labaqui, a Buenos Aires-based analyst with emerging markets consultancy Medley Global Advisors.
First Published: Sunday, October 23, 2011, 13:07