Argentina's first lady sweeps to presidency

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BUENOS AIRES, Oct 29 (Reuters) First lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner will become Argentina's first elected woman leader, but her husband, President Nestor Kirchner, is expected to stay active behind the scenes.

Fernandez's margin of victory in the Sunday presidential vote, seen as the largest in the history of Argentine democracy, will allow her to avoid a runoff next month.

With ballots counted at 96.4 per cent of polling stations, Fernandez had 44.90 per cent support, followed by another female candidate, former lawmaker Elisa Carrio, who had 22.96 per cent.

''Kirchner is leaving the government but he's not giving up power,'' political analyst Rosendo Fraga said on television.

The Kirchners are Argentina's undisputed power couple and have been called ''the Clintons of the South.'' Fernandez, a 54-year-old lawyer, is one of her husband's key aides and a longtime senator. Voters weary of Argentina's sharp economic swings hope she will build on his successes after taking office on December 10 in a highly unusual handover between democratically elected spouses.

Kirchner's cabinet chief said the president, who could have run for re-election but backed his wife instead, would stop calling the shots once she was sworn in.

''Although they discuss everything ... they are both perfectly aware of the role each of them must play,'' Alberto Fernandez told local radio.

The ruling Front for Victory coalition, an offshoot of the Peronist party, also secured a majority in both houses of Congress and dominated the election of eight governors.

''This is a triumph for all Argentines,'' Cristina Fernandez told cheering supporters at her campaign headquarters late yesterday.

''Instead of putting us in a position of privilege, it gives us bigger responsibilities and greater obligations.'' Rebounding from a deep 2001-02 economic crisis, South America's second-largest economy has expanded by more than 8 per cent a year since Kirchner came to power in 2003, driven by strong consumer spending and agricultural exports.

''This is the best thing that could have happened to Argentina,'' middle-aged grocer Ahmad Alauy said today. ''It means her husband's project can continue.'' ECONOMIC BOOM Argentine markets reacted positively to the widely expected election result, with bonds rising about 2 per cent on average and stocks trading slightly higher.

But while she inherits the economic boom overseen by her husband, she also faces mounting concern about high inflation, energy shortages and a growing perception among some Argentines that the Kirchners may have too much power.

''If they don't have anyone against them in Congress, they'll pass whatever laws they want,'' said Antonio Bruno, a 67-year-old retiree.

On the other hand, having a clear mandate is crucial in a country that had five presidents over a two-week span just six years ago.

Much of Fernandez's support came from Argentina's poor and working classes in Buenos Aires province, the country's most populous, and the impoverished northern provinces, where many credit Kirchner with creating jobs.

Voting tallies showed Carrio, an anti-corruption crusader who pledged to bolster the country's fragile institutions, fared well with middle- and upper-class voters in several of Argentina's biggest cities, beating Fernandez in the capital city Buenos Aires.

''We are clearly the leaders of a civilized, constructive opposition,'' Carrio said, referring to her Civic Coalition alliance.

Fernandez, in a conciliatory victory speech, appealed for Argentines' support across the political spectrum.

''We know it's necessary to deepen the changes, and to do that, we need to rally the biggest number of Argentines to help us,'' she said.

REUTERS GT PM0014

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