Argentine leader suffers sharp blow in vote

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez lost control of Congress in Sunday’s mid-term election as her husband trailed in a key congressional race, preliminary official results showed.

Exit polls showed Fernandez allies would lose enough seats in the lower house and the Senate to wipe out her majorities in both houses as her center-left government struggles to contain a dramatic economic slowdown.

Nestor Kirchner, who was president before his wife took power, ran for Congress in populous Buenos Aires province to bolster her government in an election seen as a referendum on the couple’s economic policies and combative governing style.

With 78 percent of voting stations reporting in Buenos Aires province, millionaire businessman Francisco de Narvaez had 34.56 percent of the votes, compared with 32.30 percent for Kirchner.

“At the end of the night triumph awaits us,” De Narvaez told supporters at his election night headquarters, all but declaring victory in the cliffhanger race.

Buenos Aires province is home to more than a third of the population, making it the country’s biggest electoral prize.

Kirchner, a Peronist, had counted on support from the province’s slums and working-class neighborhoods, but farming districts turned against him and it turned into a tight race with de Narvaez, a dissident from the same political party.

In their combined six years in power, the Kirchners have increased state intervention in the economy, alienating farm and industry leaders.


Fernandez, a center-leftist who in 2007 succeeded Kirchner in office, has stagnated with a 30 percent approval rating as Latin America’s No. 3 economy hits turbulence after a six-year expansion.

The mid-terms are viewed as a springboard for the 2011 presidential race, but Kirchner’s chances of returning to power may fade after a weak showing in Sunday’s congressional contest.

Argentines’ biggest concerns are crime and inflation, according to opinion polls, and Fernandez’s failure to tame high prices is one reason her popularity has flagged.

Also, the Kirchners’ confrontational style — including frequent clashes with business leaders — has worn thin with many Argentines.

“I don’t like their arrogance and I like the idea of changing things a bit, so I voted for De Narvaez,” said Monica Vidal, 34, who runs a cab stand and voted in the Avellaneda suburb.

On the campaign trail, Kirchner warned the country would return to the chaos of the 2001-2002 economic and political meltdown if people did not back him and his wife.

Kirchner’s popularity rose during his 2003-2007 term in office as he presided over an economic rebound and surge in employment. His wife was easily elected in late 2007 on promises to continue the economic good times.

But soon after she was elected she tried to raise taxes on soy, the country’s top crop, sparking protests in rural and urban areas, and she was not able to recover her momentum before the global economic crisis hit.


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