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Argentines favor outgoing president’s ally despite national woes

Buenos Aires state Gov. Daniel Scioli, an ally of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is expected to win the most votes in Sunday's election to succeed her. The question is whether he'll garner enough to win outright.

Buenos Aires state Gov. Daniel Scioli, an ally of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is expected to win the most votes in Sunday’s election to succeed her. The question is whether he’ll garner enough to win outright.

(Jorge Saenz / Associated Press)

Despite Argentina’s slumping economy, rising crime rates and spiraling inflation, an ally of outgoing President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is the heavy favorite to place first in Sunday’s presidential election, a reflection of the popularity of her populist social programs and human rights record.

The question is whether Buenos Aires state Gov. Daniel Scioli will tally enough votes to win the election outright against his two main opponents, Buenos Aires city Mayor Mauricio Macri and Congressman Sergio Massa.

To do so, Scioli must win at least 45% of the votes, or garner 40% and outdistance his nearest opponent by a margin of at least 10 percentage points. Recent polls show Scioli with between 38% and 41% support, Macri between 29% and 32% and Massa between 20% and 23%.

In any scenario, the election means the end of 12 years of Kirchnerismo, which critics call a somewhat authoritarian variation of the socialist politics that have long dominated in Argentina. The late Nestor Kirchner held the top job from 2003 to 2007, and was succeeded in office by Fernandez, his wife, whose second four-year term ends Dec. 10.

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She will leave an economy suffering from 28% inflation and stagnant growth after a miserable 2014 in which total economic output shrank 2%. The slowdown’s effects have been masked by a burst in election-year public spending that will create a large government deficit this year, a mess her successor will have to clean up, said economist Cynthia Moskovits of the FIEL think tank in Buenos Aires.

But Scioli, the Victory Front party candidate and the president’s choice to succeed her, will benefit from the solid support she enjoys among young and lower-middle-class voters. They approve of her wealth redistribution efforts and subsidies of public transit and utilities prices, as well as her determined prosecution of those culpable for deaths, kidnappings and torture of thousands of victims during the military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983.

Many Argentines credit Kirchner and Fernandez with rescuing the country from political and economic chaos that followed a bond default and devaluation in 2001. Violent protests in that era resulted in 32 deaths. The country saw five presidents take office from late 2000 through 2001.

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The Kirchners’ social programs included expanded pension coverage, elderly care and education subsidies. The programs were financed partly by higher tax and duty revenue produced by the global commodities boom that saw skyrocketing prices and demand for Argentine wheat, soy and beef.

The Kirchners’ policies reduced the poverty rate from 57% in 2002 to 25% in 2014. Their massive boost in public sector hiring helped lower unemployment rate from 21% in 2002 to the current 5%.

“People see her policies as benefiting those in need,” said Columbia University political science professor Maria Victoria Murillo. “Her popularity is more than 40%, which is not minor given the economy that’s not so good and the fact she has been around for eight years.”

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Other actions taken by Fernandez have been less popular, including the nationalization of public services, an airline and the biggest oil company. She is also criticized for a perceived hostility toward the media and her refusal to settle the dispute with “holdout” bondholders dating back to the 2001 default. That failure has hurt Argentina’s access to the global financial markets, Moskovits said.

Many have also decried what they see as Fernandez trying to perpetuate her hold on power, like socialist heads of state in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela in recent years. But her plan to run for a third term was frustrated by reversals in the 2013 legislative elections that ended any chance of a needed constitutional reform.

For those reasons, even Scioli has tried to put some distance between himself and his patron, saying that, if elected, he would name ministers who oppose some of Fernandez’s policies. He has also said that he would settle the bondholder dispute once and for all, and that he would take a tougher approach to rising crime.

“Scioli has developed an ambiguous campaign with some definite differences with respect to Fernandez,” said political analyst Sergio Berensztein.

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Cecilia Mosto, an analyst with the CIO public opinion consultants, said Scioli has successfully played both sides of the political fence.

“His campaign is oriented toward an alliance with the government while differentiating himself from an economic model that shows signs of exhaustion and of deteriorating institutional integrity, including corruption,” Mosto said. “This double game has given him an advantage against his opponents.”

Vilma Farias, 60, a domestic worker in Buenos Aires and longtime Fernandez supporter, said she will reluctantly vote for Scioli.

“I have my doubts about voting for him because I think we have to improve on things that [Fernandez] hasn’t done well, especially in the last few years,” Farias said. “But I think [Scioli] will be different from Cristina. I certainly hope so.”

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Prior to his election as governor, Scioli, 58, also served as vice president under Kirchner, congressman and national secretary of sports and tourism. Before entering politics, he was an internationally known racer of high-speed boats. He lost an arm in a racing accident in 1989.

Special correspondents D’Alessandro reported from Buenos Aires and Kraul from Bogota, Colombia.

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