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ELECTIONS-ARGENTINA: Victory Front for Fernandez

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Oct 21 2011 (IPS) - The polls all point to a crushing first-round victory for Argentine President Cristina Fernández in Sunday’s elections, due to her administration’s successful social and economic policies and the wave of sympathy she received after her husband’s death, analysts say.

 Credit: Argentina Senate

Credit: Argentina Senate

The candidate for the centre-left Frente para la Victoria (Front for Victory), the largest faction in the governing Justicialista (Peronist) Party, is running against a diverse and highly divided opposition that political scientists say offers no concrete alternatives.

The latest poll on voting intentions by Management & Fit gave Fernández 54 percent support, followed by socialist candidate Hermes Binner, governor of the eastern province of Santa Fe, with 11.6 percent.

Fernández needs just 45 percent of the vote, or 40 percent with a 10 percentage point lead over her closest rival, to avoid a runoff.

The projections confirm what happened in August, in the country’s first-ever open and simultaneous nationwide presidential primary, in which voting was mandatory, when the president was elected as a candidate by more than 50 percent of all voters.

But now the polls point to an even higher level of support, and an even larger gap between her and the numerous opposition candidates who are trailing far behind.

Her main rival is no longer Ricardo Alfonsín of the centrist Radical Civic Union, who is expected to continue losing support and to yield second place to Binner.

They are followed by the governor of the western province of San Luis, Alberto Rodríguez Saa, and former caretaker president Eduardo Duhalde (2001-2002) – both of whom come from right-wing factions in the Peronist party – with five and four percent ratings, respectively, according to Management & Fit.

The leader of the centrist Civic Coalition, Elisa Carrió, is expected to suffer a major setback with respect to the 2007 presidential elections, when she came in second with 23 percent of the vote. Her support now is below one percent.

The polling company also found that 14.3 percent of respondents were still undecided.

The question is why is the gap between Fernández and the rest of the candidates so gaping? What are the key factors in the president’s expected triumph?

Mariel Fornoni of Management & Fit pointed out to IPS that in 2009, support for the president had already started to improve after a drop caused by the lengthy standoff with large landowners and agribusiness over an increase in taxes on farm exports.

To that was added the solidarity she received after her husband, former president Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007), unexpectedly died of a heart attack on Oct. 27, 2010.

But it is not just about sympathy. Her popularity is also due to the high levels of economic growth and strong social policies, especially the conditional cash transfer programmes and expansion of social coverage to vast segments of society.

A survey by the Public Opinion Study Centre (CEOP) found that voters saw these as the government’s main achievements, along with the economic stability in the midst of the global crisis.

The Universal Child Allowance introduced in late 2009 grants 64 dollars a month for each child under 18, up to a maximum of five children, to parents who are unemployed, work in the informal sector of the economy, or work as domestics. Pregnant women also receive the allowance. In the case of disabled children, the monthly allowance is four times that.

The cash transfer, which is now received by the families of more than 3.6 million children and adolescents in this South American country of 40 million people, is conditional on school attendance and keeping up-to-date on vaccines and health checkups.

This policy was mentioned by 38 percent of those polled by CEOP as the Fernández administration’s biggest achievement.

In addition, the Education Ministry has so far distributed, since 2009, 1.7 million laptops to public secondary school students, who keep them until they have finished their studies.

The rise in pensions and expansion of social security coverage to older adults who did not previously have an income were mentioned by 32 percent of respondents as a major accomplishment, while the economic stability despite the crisis sweeping the world was the third achievement, cited by 28 percent.

Since Kirchner, Fernández’s late husband, took office in 2003, Argentina’s GDP has grown at an average of seven percent a year. And after the country defaulted on its foreign debt in late 2001, the debt was successfully restructured, and the government began to make regular payments without any setbacks.

Since then, the government has taken on no new debt, because it would be charged high interest rates due to the default. Nevertheless, the economy has posted a budget surplus and trade surplus, foreign reserves stand at around 50 billion dollars, poverty has steadily declined, and employment is growing.

Continuing concerns include high inflation and, especially, the government’s refusal to address the issue. In 2007, the Kirchner administration overhauled the national statistics institute, INDEC, whose reports have been suspect ever since.

The government claims inflation is under 10 percent a year. But according to estimates by private economists, the annual average is between 20 and 25 percent.

Statistics on poverty also vary widely.

The Equis local consulting firm says that although the universal child allowance has helped millions of people leave poverty behind, 20 percent of the population is still poor. However, the government puts the proportion at below 10 percent.

“The president and her government have an approval rating of around 64 percent today,” said Management & Fit’s Fornoni.

In the case of the rest of the candidates, with the exception of Binner, their images are more negative than positive among voters.

Management & Fit projects that even in Buenos Aires, where centre-right Mauricio Macri, one of Fernández’s most prominent opponents, was reelected as mayor this year, the president could take as much as 42 percent of the vote Sunday.

In the city’s lower-income suburbs, the distance between Fernández and her rivals is much larger. In these areas, she has over 70 percent support, while that proportion climbs to 80 percent in some of the poorer provinces, like Santiago del Estero in the northwest.

“Voters recognise that she has governed well,” said Eduardo Fidanza with the Poliarquía polling firm.

He also said that against all expectations, after she was widowed, the president “wrote her own script.”

He was alluding to the fears that were stirred up after Kirchner’s death by many who said Fernández would not be able to govern without her husband, the political leader of the Frente para la Victoria, the Peronist faction that they founded together.

Fernández became more open to dialogue, less confrontational and more magnanimous since her husband died, and these qualities, according to the pollsters, are also recognised by voters, who are expected to back her in even greater numbers than in 2007, when she won a first-round victory with 45 percent of the vote.

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