Analysis: Argentine president makes her mark without husband

By Helen Popper

BUENOS AIRES (BestGrowthStock) – Argentine President Cristina Fernandez is putting a more pragmatic stamp on policy following the death of her husband, Nestor Kirchner, who was widely seen as the country’s most powerful politician.

Still wearing black as she mourns the loss of her closest adviser, Fernandez is riding a wave of voter sympathy that has lifted her poll ratings and wrong-footed rivals less than a year from an October 2011 presidential vote.

Kirchner’s death and several subsequent policy moves by Fernandez have boosted Argentine asset prices. Prices for the dollar-denominated Discount bond have risen 4.3 percent since the former president died on October 27.

But a year is a long time in Argentine politics, and once public sympathy starts to wane, Fernandez will face increased pressure over high inflation that could inflame tensions between the unions and business over wage demands.

For now, she seems determined to underline her authority in a government in which her husband and predecessor was seen to play a central role, especially in designing economic policy.

Some skeptics see her request for help from the International Monetary Fund to improve the country’s discredited inflation data as an effort to blunt the opposition’s best weapon against her.

But the overture to the IMF suggests Fernandez is pushing policies Kirchner would have resisted.

“It’s a sign Cristina is maybe going to have a slightly more open focus and be a bit more willing to accept the rules of the world,” said political analyst Manuel Mora y Araujo. “During the Kirchner years, Argentina wanted to play by its own rules.”

Kirchner, who was a leading contender for next year’s vote, paid off Argentina’s debt to the IMF in 2006 and said there was “no way in hell” the country would borrow from it again.

COMBATIVE STYLE

Sharp-tongued and forthright, Fernandez was better-known in national politics than Kirchner when he was elected president on the ashes of the country’s 2001-2002 economic crisis, which plunged millions of Argentines into poverty.

Like Kirchner, the former senator has a combative style and peppers her speeches with criticism of rivals and references to the couple’s militant past as members of the Young Peronists — part of the ruling party to which she belongs.

Such talk goes down well with die-hard Kirchneristas, but alienates moderate, middle-class voters.

While Fernandez has not said that she plans to run for re-election, political analysts say she may be showing greater pragmatism with an eye to shoring up the minimum 40 percent of votes she would need to win in a first-round vote next year.

Her approval rating rose to 56 percent after Kirchner’s death from about 35 percent previously, according to a Management & Fit poll. Other polls have shown similar results.

“If she can cool her rhetoric a bit, she’s also got a favorable wind from having an opposition on the other side that is unable to come up with anything,” said Mariel Fornoni, a director at the Buenos Aires-based polling firm.

Kirchner’s sudden departure threw the couple’s opponents off balance, especially dissident Peronists who opposed Kirchner’s leadership of the movement.

One prominent member of the so-called Federal Peronists — former racing driver Carlos Reutemann — quit the faction saying “not everyone has respected the president’s grief.”

POLITICAL LEGACY

Fernandez’s overture to the IMF this week was all the more surprising because it came days after she announced triumphantly that the Paris Club would negotiate repayment of Argentina’s some $6.5 billion debt without IMF oversight.

But Fernandez has vowed to honor Kirchner’s political legacy, and the decision to recognize controversy over official inflation data is not expected to yield big changes.

“The government is unlikely to acknowledge in the near term that actual inflation is higher than what the official statistics show,” Credit Suisse strategist Carola Sandy wrote.

Argentina’s economy is on track to expand 9 percent this year, giving Fernandez an advantage over potential opposition candidates, but double-digit inflation will fuel hefty demands when wage negotiations start in March.

Fernandez announced a year-end bonus for pensioners feeling the pinch of surging food prices and, perhaps wary of the risk of labor unrest, she called last week for a social pact between unions and business.

“We need a three-way dialogue, with the state as the guide,” she said.

Such conciliatory noises strike a chord with many voters who felt alienated by Kirchner.

“Nestor was all about confrontation … Now he’s gone, things are opening up,” said Jorge Suarez, 51, a loan salesman sitting in front of the presidential palace.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

Analysis: Argentine president makes her mark without husband