Argentines seen voting for continued prosperity

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BUENOS AIRES, Oct 28 (Reuters) Argentines vote for a new president today with first lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner poised to succeed her husband in a rare democratic handover between spouses.

Many Argentines credit center-left President Nestor Kirchner with pulling the country out of a dramatic economic crisis and using growth of 8 percent a year to create jobs, raise salaries and expand pension benefits.

A longtime senator, Fernandez has been Kirchner's top advisor in his four-year presidency. Voters tired of boom-bust cycles hope she will sustain the bonanza he has overseen, even as high inflation and energy shortages cause concern.

''I'm voting for Cristina Kirchner to deepen the change that began in 2004, which clearly benefited the working-class majority,'' said Luciano Alvarez, a 33-year-old social worker.

If she wins, Fernandez will be the first elected woman president in Argentine history.

She would avoid a runoff election by getting at least 45 per cent of the votes today, or more than 40 per cent with a 10 per centage point lead over her nearest rival.

Recent polls show Fernandez with between 39.5 per cent and 49.4 per cent of votes. Former lawmaker and anti-corruption crusader Elisa Carrio trailed far behind, with around 20 percent support.

Roberto Lavagna, Kirchner's economy minister until late 2005, was in third place with a maximum of 19 per cent.

All three candidates are center-leftists, showing that most Argentines reject the free-market policies of the 1990s, which they blame for the economic meltdown in 2001-02.

Fernandez would be the latest to join the growing ranks of leftist leaders in South America. But while she is expected to stay friendly with Venezuela's firebrand socialist president, Hugo Chavez, she, like her husband, is seen as more moderate.

It has been a lackluster presidential campaign, with no primaries, no candidates' debates and no concrete policy outlines from the front-runner. And polls show most people believe Fernandez is assured of victory.

The first lady challenged the idea of voter apathy, saying political and economic stability had bred serenity.

''I think Argentines are calm for the first time in a long time, in a country where past elections have seemed like Russian roulette,'' Fernandez said in a speech last week.

However, many Argentines are worried about rising inflation and believe the government has interfered with the national statistics office to put out false inflation data. Private economists say the real inflation rate is about double the 8.6 percent reported for the 12 months to September.

An energy crunch has hurt the government's image as well.

During an unusually cold southern hemisphere winter, Argentina limited power and natural gas to industry to ensure home heating, stoking fears of future shortages.

Economists also worry about this year's sharp rise in government spending, depressed public utility rates and unresolved financial matters, such as Argentina's 6.3 billion dollars defaulted debt to the Paris Club of creditor nations.

Poverty has plummeted since Kirchner took office in May 2003, but nearly a quarter of Argentines are still poor.

''Nothing will change in Argentina, it's the same whether it's Cristina governing or President Kirchner,'' said Roberto Moran, 59, who sold tiny flags on the street. ''For a country so rich in resources, we have a lot of unmet needs.'' REUTERS SKB VC1126

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