Argentine first lady wins presidential election

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BUENOS AIRES, Oct 29 (Reuters) First lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner swept to victory in Argentina's presidential vote the first woman elected to lead the country.

''We've won by a wide margin,'' she told joyous followers in a speech at her campaign bunker as exit polls and early official results showed her with enough support to take a first-round victory and avoid a runoff election next month.

Cheers and chants erupted yesterday when Fernandez appeared on stage with her husband, President Nestor Kirchner, while dozens of supporters banged drums and waved banners and Argentine flags in the street outside.

Fernandez, 54, ran on the popular Kirchner's record and will take over from him in a highly unusual transfer of power between elected spouses.

Many Argentines credit Kirchner with pulling the country out of a dramatic economic crisis in 2001-02 and using growth of 8 per cent a year to create jobs, raise salaries and expand pension benefits.

''She's going to be the same as her husband, who has done a lot of things like build houses for the poor,'' said 50-year-old chauffeur Ramon Reggie Quiroga.

With results counted from one-quarter of polling stations, Fernandez had 42.5 per cent of the vote, followed by former economy minister Roberto Lavagna with 20.1 per cent and former lawmaker Elisa Carrio with 19.8 per cent.

Fernandez was expected to hold her support at above 40 per cent and with a lead wider than 10 percentage points over her closest rival, handing her an outright victory.

Exit polls showed that when all the votes were tallied, Carrio would move into second place but still be way behind Fernandez.

Lavagna conceded the election on Sunday night, but Carrio was apparently waiting for more complete results.

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

Argentina, a major grains exporter and producer of beef on its huge pampas grasslands, is South America's second biggest country and historically one of its wealthiest.

Argentina had its only other woman president in the mid-1970s when Isabel Peron took power after the death of her husband, strongman leader Juan Peron, but she was not elected to the job.

A Fernandez victory would make her the second woman elected president in a Latin America country in the last two years, coming after Chile's Michelle Bachelet won office.

It would also continue the trend of leftist leadership in South America. But while Fernandez is expected to stay friendly with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, she, like her husband, is more moderate than the firebrand socialist.

Her campaign seemed effortless. Handpicked by her husband and chosen by a faction of the Peronist party without a primary, Fernandez avoided debates and was vague on policy.

Rivals have criticized the Kirchners as being authoritarian and treating the election as the beginning of a political dynasty to tighten their grip on the presidency and Congress.

REUTERS SZ PM0801

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