Argentina pins hope on Patagonia's mystery man

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The Independent US

Until Carlos Menem pulled out of the presidential race in Argentina, Nestor Kirchner, 53, was the little-known governor of Santa Cruz, a remote Patagonian province rich in oil and glaciers.

Yesterday Mr Kirchner prepared to assume the presidency without majority electoral support, and began assembling a new government and cobbling together the support of feuding political leaders from his own Peronist party

Mr Kirchner's relative anonymity was one of his trump cards in bringing round Argentinians disgusted with the corrupt old guard. His campaign posters portrayed his grave, hyperthyroid gaze above the slogan, "A serious country". A tall, grey lawyer of German-Swiss-Croatian descent with a squint and a lisp, what Mr Kirchner lacks in charisma, his striking, fiercely intelligent senator wife Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner makes up for.

He is a centre-left progressive populist, who recognises the importance of foreign investment, but not the "carnal relations" he said Mr Menem maintained with the United States during Argentina's brief period of prosperity in the 1990s, at the expense of jobs and production at home, which now languishes in 58 per cent poverty and 18 per cent unemployment. Mr Kirchner and his wife were militants in the Peronist Youth in the 1970s, but deny Mr Menem's accusation that they were Montoneros, the extreme left-wing Peronist offshoot involved in terrorism.

Cristina rejected the title First Lady yesterday in favour of First Citizen. Few doubt the strong-minded senator for Santa Cruz province influences her husband's decisions.

When he first spoke of standing for president, he was portrayed as the poodle of the incumbent, Eduardo Duhalde, a Peronist, who had promised to leave office, but was obsessed with keeping his arch-rival, Mr Menem, out of power.

When it became clear this week that Mr Kirchner would have to assume the presidency on 25 May with only 22 per cent of the vote, many feared it was a licence for Mr Duhalde to continue pulling the strings. Yet during his campaign he has come across as a serious man of strong conviction, and has refused to be coerced into pacts with Peronist factions or corporate or other interests.

Such pledges of ethical rigour have earned him the approval of 46 per cent of Argentinians, the highest of any front-line politician. He will also retain Roberto Lavagna as Finance Minister, who is also highly popular, having stabilised the economy over the past year and negotiated a life-saving $6.3bn (£3.8bn) debt relief deal with the IMF. However, Mr Kirchner is still a member of the Peronist party, a notoriously unwieldy and corrupt machine which rarely grants leaders autonomy.

He has a reputation for fiscal prudence – when he became governor of Santa Cruz (a post he has held three consecutive times), the province was $1bn in debt and, after returning its books to the black, he shrewdly stowed part of its savings to banks in Switzerland and Luxembourg. A move of uncanny prescience, since they avoided being frozen and devalued by up to 70 per cent in December 2001.

While his fiscal record is encouraging many point out that it is not that hard to administer the finances of a province rich in oil and gas, with a population of only 200,000. Yet, in a country dogged by 18 per cent employment and with 58 per cent living in poverty, and 20 per cent child malnutrition, Mr Kirchner's achievements strike a chord.

He pledges to put the needs of the poorest over corporate interests, planning tax reform to achieve a greater distribution of wealth, pledging or example to demand a sizeable "haircut" of Argentina's external debt (it owes $55bn to private foreign bondholders and $30bn to multilateral lenders) and more time to pay it back at lower interest rates.

He favours state control of education, health and pensions and proposes to create jobs through a programme of investment in infrastructure, particularly housing.

With the economy now emerging from a five-year recession, and predicted to grow at around 4 per cent for the next two years, Mr Kirchner should get a better shot at it than his recent predecessors.