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In Argentina, a death breathes political life into president

This is a nation in mourning.

With the fatal heart attack of 60-year-old former President Nestor Kirchner eight weeks ago, the country was cast into grief, its giant cities and tiny towns echoing with lamentations for a lost leader.

Nestor Vive” reads the graffito, sprayed again and again like a black armband wrapped tightly around the concrete walls of barrios both rich and poor. Nestor Lives.

No one has suffered more than Kirchner’s widow, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who is also Argentina’s current president.

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Devastated by the passing of her mentor and partner, who preceded her in office and who was expected to run again next year, Fernandez, 57, still struggles to hold back her tears. Dressed in black, she speaks publicly of “him” and of “Nestor,” as her eyes well up and her chin trembles.

But if untimely death shattered the carefully laid political plans of the nation’s most powerful duo, it also spurred an unexpected tidal wave of popular support that could resuscitate Fernandez’s political fortunes.

Prior to Kirchner’s death Oct. 27, Fernandez faced an approval rating of about 35% from a public that had soured on her combative style. Squabbles over taxes and agricultural policy, a battle with the nation’s largest media company and allegations of corruption had taken a profound toll on a once-popular presidency, threatening to boot her Justicialist Party from power.

But since her husband’s passing, Fernandez’s approval rating has surpassed 65% by some counts, and late last month, 44% of voters told polling company Equis that they would cast their presidential ballots for Fernandez next fall. That’s more than enough to win office under Argentine election rules.

Argentina’s electoral law allows presidents only two terms in a row but does not limit nonconsecutive terms, a peculiarity that in theory would have allowed the couple to alternate presidencies indefinitely. With Kirchner’s passing, Fernandez faces the prospect of running a second time.

“I am heartbroken, devastated, but empowered,” said Estela Ferrigutti, a cook who spent a recent Saturday handing out pro-Fernandez leaflets on the main shopping street in this agricultural city of 500,000, a six-hour drive northwest of Buenos Aires. “It was a terrible thing, but only makes us support Cristina more.”

Her friend, homemaker Sonia Ramirez, clutching a stack of fliers with Kirchner’s haunting eyes staring out from a blue background, chimed in. “We are showing our love for Cristina in her time of need,” she said.

The sweeping public embrace has been, in political terms, something of a miracle considering that, until his death, Kirchner had been even more unpopular than his wife.

Yet in a nation with a knack for making deities of deceased political figures such as Juan Peron and his first wife, Evita, Kirchner’s demise seems to have plunged a needle deep into the nation’s emotional heart once again. And out gushed love.

“We are in a special moment,” said Hugo Moyano, the nation’s top labor leader, in a stirring public speech supporting the president. “She is holding together, very strong and solid, in spite of the pain.”

Fernandez has not committed to running again. At least not just yet. Instead, some analysts here say, she’s been using what they call “the widow effect” to other advantage.

As schools, highways, soccer stadiums and even a national park were being rechristened in the name of Kirchner, his wife last month boldly challenged Congress to pass her 2011 budget proposal “without touching so much as a comma.”

Days later, she gave a national address in which she bragged that she would finally pay off the last of the billions of dollars in debt the country defaulted on nearly a decade ago, a financial cataclysm that ultimately led to her husband’s election and set off a chain of economic debacles that rocked the country, turning it into an international financial pariah.

The recent release of diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks revealing concerns of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton about Fernandez’s mental health has done little to tarnish the leader’s image here; headlines be damned, la presidente is suddenly bulletproof.

Fuerza Cristina!” (Strength, Cristina!) shout the posters around Buenos Aires, tacked up late at night by members of the Evita Movement (as in Peron).

It is not the first time that death has breathed life into Argentine politics. Tragic circumstances benefited former President Carlos Menem, who seemingly leveraged the death of his son in a helicopter accident for political purposes on the way to winning reelection in 1995.

And one of the potential rivals to Fernandez for the presidency, Ricardo Alfonsin, has enjoyed a huge popularity boost prompted by the death last year of his ex-president father, Raul.

“Could Cristina be using this event for her own political gain?” says Tulia Falleti, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. “It would not be impossible.”

Over empanadas outside Santa Fe, plant biologist Leandro Lucero shakes his head at the turns in political fortune. Lucero is as obsessed with politics as he is with soccer and assumed, as did much of the nation, that Fernandez had worn out her welcome in a country where the price of beef — practically a birthright for Argentines — has risen 40% this year.

“Cristina was done politically,” he said, musing over conspiracy theories that Kirchner’s death could have been the result of foul play. “Who could have predicted this two months ago?”

ken.bensinger@latimes.com


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