BUENOS AIRES, Oct 29 (Reuters) Argentine first lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner rode an economic boom and her husband's popularity to victory in a presidential election on Sunday to become the country's first elected woman leader.
Fernandez, a glamorous lawyer and center-left senator, will take over from President Nestor Kirchner in December in a rare power handover between democratically elected spouses.
Results from almost a third of polling stations showed Fernandez with 43 per cent support, enough to avoid a runoff given her wide lead over second-place candidate Elisa Carrio, a former lawmaker, and former economy minister Roberto Lavagna in the third spot.
Fernandez, 54, ran an effortless campaign without a primary, a candidates' debate or concrete policy outlines. She instead met foreign leaders and trumpeted lower unemployment and poverty rates since Kirchner took office four years ago.
Kirchner is credited with leading Argentina's recovery from an economic meltdown in 2001-2002. The crisis devastated a proud middle class that long distinguished Argentina, a major grains exporter, from its Latin American neighbors and led it to default on 100 billion dollars in debt.
''This country was destroyed. It was a country in default, with millions of people unemployed. Suddenly, everything changed. She's going to take the policies of this government even further,'' said Lilia Balencia, 65, a social worker celebrating at Fernandez's campaign bunker on Sunday night.
Although a fiscal conservative, Kirchner increased the state's role in the economy, reversing many privatizations from the 1990s and placing price controls on utility rates and fuel prices.
Fernandez is likely to continue those policies but is not expected to move further left and is a moderate compared with socialist leaders in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.
Much more comfortable on the diplomatic stage than her travel-shy husband, Fernandez will remain friendly with anti-U.S. President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela while trying to improve relations with Washington.
In electing Fernandez, Argentines opted for continuity, a sign of a deep fear of change after decades on an economic roller coaster that has wiped out life savings time and again.
The bulk of Fernandez's support came from poor people who think Kirchner has improved their lives, partly through new pensions and tax breaks.
But exit polls showed Carrio taking one of four votes nationwide and giving Fernandez a run for her money in middle class and urban areas like the capital Buenos Aires.
POLITICAL JUNKIE Opposition candidates were not able to capitalize on corruption scandals involving Kirchner officials, or on Argentines' top concern: the steeply rising cost of living.
Lavagna conceded defeat yesterday night, but Carrio was apparently waiting for more complete results.
Fernandez was a leftist student activist in the 1970s and has been a political junkie ever since. The mother of two has said even her family took a back seat to her ideals of bringing greater social equality to Argentina.
The opposition criticized Fernandez's expensive clothes and warned that a continuation of Kirchner's price freezes and state intervention in the economy will make things worse for the poor, not better, by frightening off investors.
Argentina has had a woman president before, but she was not elected. Isabel Peron, the third wife of former President Juan Peron, succeeded him when he died in 1974 and ruled for two years until she was ousted in a military coup.
Fernandez has been compared to Peron's second wife, the mid-20th century icon Eva ''Evita'' Peron. But she has more in common with US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton since both are lawyers and senators married to men who were governors and later became presidents.
Fernandez will be the fifth elected woman leader in Latin America.
Although she was prominent nationally before her husband, many see her presidency as a second Kirchner term. The two have had a tight political partnership for three decades and he is expected to be her top advisor, just as she was his.
Despite her clear victory, economic challenges loom for Fernandez, including higher inflation, an energy crunch and a deteriorating budget surplus.
Argentines recently called for boycotts of tomatoes, potatoes and other foods as prices have soared. The president-elect says she will fight inflation by striking deals with businesses and unions to cap profit and wage demands.
REUTERS SYU HS0920