Argentina's Fernández tightens grip on power with historic victory

Shielding the country from a global recession is president's first assignment

Argentineans gave President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner an historic sweeping victory on Sunday, re-electing her to a second term with the highest number of votes since the restoration of democracy in 1983.

With 98.25 percent of the voting tables counted by late Monday, Fernández had captured 53.9 percent of the votes - enough to avoid a runoff. Her closest rival, Socialist Hermes Binner, won 17 percent while the Radical Party candidate Ricardo Alfonsín received 11 percent. Two other opposition Peronist candidates, Alberto Rodríguez Saá and former President Eduardo Duhalde, performed poorly with 7.9 percent and 5.9 percent respectively.

With this landslide victory, Fernández has consolidated her political power with her Front for Victory coalition also winning a majority 135 seats in Congress and 24 in the Senate. Fernández did even better at the polls this year than the first time she ran for president in 2007, when her 45-percent showing was widely viewed as proof of the popularity of her husband, the then-outgoing President Néstor Kirchner.

Kirchner, who died suddenly of a heart attack one year ago, was widely admired in Argentina after he brought the economy and the country's soaring debt under control. Now Fernández will have to look for ways to soften any economic blows that could be caused by the threat of a new global economic recession.

"Cristina Kirchner's most important agenda will have to focus on the effects of the second phase of the global crisis," says Jorge Gaggero, an economist at the Economic and Finance Center for Argentina's Development. On Wednesday, Latin American economy ministers were scheduled to meet in Buenos Aires to discuss joint measures to help deal with the looming financial threat.

Having reached her goal of exceeding 50 percent of the vote, Fernández's win was the second-biggest in the country's history after the 40-percentage-point victory garnered by Juan Domingo Perón over radical Ricardo Balbín in 1973. Shortly after casting her ballot in Rio Gallegos, the president said she "had mixed feelings about a lot of things."

"But if I tell you that I am happy, I would lying," said an emotional Fernández as she recalled her late husband.

Kirchner "was a man who made a mark in Argentina's political life," she said.

"This vote was the last step of an institutional process to consolidate the opening of the political parties to society," she added. For the first time in Argentina's history, the parties held primaries to pick their presidential candidates.

The opposition had been poised to loose badly, according to pre-election polls, leading to a spirit of widespread resignation even about the possibility of forcing a runoff. For the radicals - traditionally the second-largest political force in the country - Sunday's election results were particularly painful. The party is still suffering from an internal crisis stemming from an internal struggle in 2001.

The radical candidate Ricardo Alfonsín, son of the late President Raúl Alfonsín, who became the first elected chief-of-state after democracy was restored in 1983 when the military gave up power, has promised that there will be a reorganization but he intends to continue to lead the party. Hermes Binner, a 68-year-old doctor and governor of Santa Fe province, will now become the main opposition leader.

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