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Argentinian First Lady Kirchner Elected President

October 29, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: Before thousands of cheering supporters at a Buenos Aires hotel, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner celebrated the election returns that transformed her from Argentina’s first lady to its next president.

CRISTINA FERNANDEZ DE KIRCHNER, President-Elect, Argentina (through translator): We have won by a landslide, maybe with the biggest percentage difference between the first and second force since democracy started. But this fact, far from putting us in a position of privilege, on the contrary, it puts us in a position of greater responsibilities and greater obligations because the people of Argentina have put their trust in us.

KWAME HOLMAN: With 45 percent of the vote, she easily surpassed the hurdle for a runoff and will become Argentina’s first elected female president.

A three-time senator, Fernandez de Kirchner was tapped by her husband, President Nestor Kirchner, to carry the Peronist Party banner against 13 other candidates. But she spent much of the campaign traveling abroad, meeting foreign dignitaries, and held few political rallies in Argentina and refused to participate in debates.

The 54-year-old Fernandez de Kirchner has promised to build on the work of her husband, who many Argentines credit with bringing the country out of economic chaos. Husband and wife have been the core of a tight political circle during his tenure, according to Ana Baron of Argentina’s Clarin newspaper.

ANA BARON, Clarin Newspaper: She was a member of a very, very small group of people that were always with Kirchner, the president, taking the decisions, so she was there since the start, you know, taking all the decisions with him, you know, advising. He used to say that she was the most tough of all the advisers, that she criticized him a lot.

And, you know, they have run the country very tightly. I mean, this group is really very small. It’s like three or four people. There were never meetings of the cabinet. The secretaries never met as normal governments do. So this government was very, very tight and very controlled by these few people and, of course, the president. She was totally involved in everything, in everything.

KWAME HOLMAN: Defying Western advice for austerity, and with help from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Kirchner took credit for Argentina’s rebound from economic collapse six years ago. That meltdown led to the largest default on a national debt in history, $141 billion, riots in the streets, and the resignation of several presidents and finance ministers. Hyperinflation plunged more than half of the nation’s 38 million people into poverty.

But despite a return to relative stability in one of South America’s largest economies, Fernandez de Kirchner faces many challenges, among them maintaining economic growth while staving off hyperinflation. Baron says Argentines remain fearful about that period several years ago.

ANA BARON: What is important for the average people, the people in the street, you know, that go every day to the supermarket, is not to see this changing increasing in prices all the time.

KWAME HOLMAN: The new president also hopes for better ties with the United States and Europe to attract more investment, according to Baron.

ANA BARON: So that’s why she really went to all these countries, Europe, United States, trying to explain that she will be open to foreign investment, that she will really make things better for foreign investment. They have not been very good, so some little changes are expected on that areas.

KWAME HOLMAN: Fernandez de Kirchner credited the votes of women for her victory, but she has vigorously rebuffed any comparisons of her political ascent with that of Hillary Clinton.

ANA BARON: They are both senators. They are both former first ladies. I think Hillary is much more pragmatic than Cristina. Cristina is more ideological. So I think there are quite big differences, also.

KWAME HOLMAN: President-elect Fernandez de Kirchner is scheduled to begin her four-year term on December 10th.