Argentina's urban slums give first lady vote lead

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CIUDAD EVITA, Argentina, Oct 17 (Reuters) Life has improved in the sprawling suburbs and dirt-poor slums that circle Argentina's capital, and that could be enough to propel first lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to the presidency.

About a quarter of Argentines live in the outskirts of Buenos Aires in neighborhoods like Ciudad Evita (Evita City), where the grip of the Peronist party seems unshakable ahead of the Oct. 28 presidential election. ''Cristina'' is daubed across walls, while opposition banners are few and far between.

Some children still pick through the rubbish beside Ciudad Evita's shantytowns, and residents complain about crime and drug use. But Argentina's recovery from a deep economic crisis in 2001-02 has started to improve the lives of many.

''Five years ago, my neighbors were in a bad way, and now it's a lot better ... People are getting jobs for the first time in many years,'' said Esther de Lopez, 45, as she sat in a Peronist campaign hut beneath a photo of Eva ''Evita'' Peron, the popular wife of former strongman Gen. Juan Peron.

Like many, she thanks President Nestor Kirchner and hopes Fernandez can continue the progress seen since her husband was elected on the smoldering ashes of the crisis in 2003.

''Cristina became popular because of President Kirchner and the way they've sorted out so many problems,'' Lopez said.

Ciudad Evita, named after Peron's wife, belongs to the working-class district of La Matanza, which has more than 1.3 million residents and is a treasured prize for politicians on the campaign trail.

It is no coincidence that Fernandez has chosen La Matanza for her final campaign rally before the election, just as her husband did four years earlier. With polls showing the senator has a lead of nearly 30 points over her nearest rival, it may look more like a victory march.

If she wins, Fernandez would be Argentina's first elected female president.

'CIVIL WAR' The Perons built Ciudad Evita in the late 1940s as a model town for the workers of La Matanza's bustling factories. But years of steady decline culminated in the meltdown of 2001-02, plunging thousands into unemployment and poverty.

At the height of the crisis, looters raided supermarkets and unemployed protesters blocked highways.

''We almost had a civil war here,'' said Jose Limeres, the secretary of a local residents' association. ''Things have been gradually improving, though we still lack many services.'' Due to its trade union past, La Matanza is closely tied to the Peronist party. Like elsewhere in greater Buenos Aires, local officials have been quick to align themselves with whoever holds the purse strings in the presidential palace.

Critics say the Peronists use patronage and vote-buying to maintain their hold on the crucial electoral region, and stories abound of candidates promising anything from fridges to sports shoes in exchange for support.

But La Matanza mayor Fernando Espinoza denied such tactics were employed in the district, saying progress to build houses and install drainage was enough to win voters' backing.

''Not since Juan Peron has a president done what Nestor Kirchner has done for La Matanza in the last four years. People can't believe it,'' he said in his office, filled with Peronist memorabilia including a bronze Evita bust.

Enthusiastic local officials reel off statistics about the changes that have taken place in the area, the numbers of factories reopening and poor neighborhoods being rebuilt, but opposition politicians cite ulterior motives.

''In La Matanza, you see a lot more development going on than elsewhere,'' said Margarita Stolbizer, an opposition candidate in the race for governor of Buenos Aires province. ''The government takes a very discretionary approach to giving out resources.'' Whatever the strategy, it is proving popular.

A year ago, Marcelina Nunez, 54, lived in the slum of Villa Palito. Now she lives in a new house built nearby with government funding.

''I'm going to vote for who gave me this house because before no one gave us anything and for two years the poverty was so bad we had to collect cardboard,'' she said in the simple, modern home. ''My life has changed ... I'm very happy.'' REUTERS RN AS1144

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