Argentina's first lady on course to take presidency

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Argentinians were on track last night to elect a modern Evita as the country's first female president, in a ballot steeped in the memory and the mythology of their sainted former first lady, Eva Peron.

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the wife of the serving President, Nestor Kirchner, won 46.3 per cent of the vote according to exit polls last night, which would be enough to avoid a second ballot. Her nearest rival, Elisa Carrio, polled just 23 per cent.

The election now looks likely to cement the couple's hold on power and establish a political dynasty as powerful as the Perons aspired to be in the 1950s.

"We will have the ballots to recover the eternal flags of Peron and Evita," Mr Kirchner boasted, and his wife evoked memories of the military junta that snuffed out Argentine democracy in the 1970s in her attempt to instil enthusiasm for an election many see as a foregone conclusion. "We have to value the importance of being able to choose in what kind of country we want to live," the designer-clad first lady told reporters after voting in her husband's home province of Santa Cruz.

"She is the one, she has to be the one," said Mariela, a 46-year-old teacher outside a polling station in Buenos Aires town centre. "I have no doubt Cristina will be a great president. And a woman president; what else can I ask for?"

But there is an air of apathy in the election campaign since President Kirchner's unexpected – and unexplained – decision this year to step aside after just one term in office and to anoint his wife as a successor. The Argentine constitution limits a president to two consecutive terms, but is ambiguous enough to allow the Kirchners to swap the presidency back and forth between them indefinitely.

To overcome Argentina's tradition of fractious coalitions, Cristina Kirchner chose as her vice-president a member of the Radical Party, the traditional rival of Mr Kirchner's Peronist Party.

If the election confirms Mrs Kirchner as president, in December she will become the second female leader on the American continent, after Chile's Michelle Bachelet, which is sure to turn heads further north as the US weighs up a Hillary Clinton bid for the presidency.

Mrs Kirchner has attempted to draw out parallels with the former first lady of the US, another lawyer who stood loyally as her husband's political fortunes won the governorship of a modest state and then the most powerful post in the land.

But the more evocative comparisons are with Eva Peron, "Evita of the clenched fists," Mrs Kirchner called her, the former actress with a similar passion for designer outfits, whose death at 33 sealed a near-sanctity that holds sway in Argentina to this day. Evita, though, never made the transition into formal politics: failing health and the implacable opposition of the Argentine elite led her to turn down requests to stand as her husband's vice-president.

It is a comparison that opponents are not keen to allow. Ms Carrio, a potential presidential runner-up from the centre-left coalition and herself a former beauty queen, has been particularly cruel: "Evita was the Queen of truth, not the Queen of Botox."

The other major contender was Mr Kirchner's former first minister of economics, Roberto Lavagna, for many one of the architects of the economic turnaround that has buoyed the Kirchner popularity and lifted hundreds of thousands of Argentinians out of poverty after the financial collapse of 2001-02.

The shadow of that crisis still looms, and the economic growth spurt comes with its own challenges, not least an inflation rate that many believe is well above the 8 per cent officially admitted. An energy crisis and widespread crime are also issues, but Mrs Kirchner has been light on promises in a campaign that leant heavily on her husband's.