The Miami Herald
Fri, May. 15, 2009

Ex-president jolts Argentina with legislative run

Associated Press Writer

Former President Nestor Kirchner formally launched his campaign for a congressional seat Thursday night in a bid to rejuvenate the sagging popularity of the woman who succeeded him - his wife, Cristina Fernandez.

The entry of Kirchner, who was widely popular as president from 2003 to 2007, has transformed what was once a sleepy midterm election into a referendum on Fernandez's left-leaning government and its struggling efforts to exert more control over the economy.

"Never in my life did I consider being a candidate for deputy, but I'm not one to step down from a battle," Kirchner said in a televised address from the city of La Plata.

"I'm going to the Chamber of Deputies full of love for country, for Argentines, the province of Buenos Aires, and to give it all I've got, with the same passion as always," he proclaimed, surrounded by ebullient congressional candidates for the ruling Peronist party and applauded from the stands by his wife.

Kirchner hopes to parlay the good will he built up when he led Argentina's strong recovery from a 2001-02 economic meltdown triggered by a record-setting $95 billion loan default and a steep currency devaluation.

His popularity was a factor in his wife's October 2007 election to the president's office, a victory at the ballot box that gave her even stronger backing in Congress than her husband had.

But a yearlong conflict with farmers and the ill effects of the global financial crisis have battered Fernandez's standing. Only 30 percent of voters support her, down from 50 percent when she became president, according to the most recent poll by Poliarquia in February. The survey had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Recent high-profile defections from the Peronist coalition have chipped away at her ample majority in congress, and lawmakers failed to pass a grain export tax hike that Fernandez proposed last year. Her own vice president cast the deciding vote in the Senate that killed the tax plan.

By heading the Peronist legislative slate in Buenos Aires province - home to more than a third of the country's voters and a traditional stronghold of the power couple - Kirchner is taking center stage in what he is making a high-stakes election contest.

Kirchner beamed confidence Thursday night that the Peronist coalition will maintain its majority when voters elect half the 256-member Chamber of Deputies and a third of the 72-member Senate on June 28.

"We're going to govern with all our strength and will power to continue the transformation and reconstruction of Argentina," he said.

A strong showing could greatly replenish the first couple's political capital, perhaps allowing them to step up efforts to bring more business under state control and ownership. Last year, the government took over billions of dollars in private pension funds as well as Argentina's main airline.

"On the 28th, not only is the possibility of continuing with this government model and project at play, but so too is the stability and the quality of our democracy," Fernandez said recently.

Despite its recent troubles, the ruling party rallied to push through Fernandez's proposal to move the elections forward by four months. She said it was to get politics out of the way so the government can focus on the economic crisis - the opposition called it an attempt to lock in votes for political allies before her popularity erodes even further.

"This is not just any election," Kirchner said before beginning his campaign. "We either return to having thousands of unemployed and the destruction of our national industry, or we defend this model that began to change the history of our country."