Argentina's First Lady May Seek Presidency

In a crucial election year for Argentina, President Kirchner's popularity ratings are sky-high. But the president could bow out of the running, making room for his senator wife, Christina.

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In Argentina, the field of presidential candidates has a formidable first lady running for president and that has voters wondering: Evita or Hillary.

From Buenos Aires, NPR's Julie McCarthy has this report.

JULIE MCCARTHY: She's a lawyer, a senator, and a shrewd orator. But in public, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner plays the deferential wife addressing her president husband, Nestor Kirchner. She slips into the familiar form of Spanish then theatrically pauses.

Ms. CRISTINA FERNANDEZ DE KIRCHNER (First Lady, Argentina; Presidential Candidate): (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: To applause, she begs forgiveness for her familiarity. Keeping praise, she declares her husband a turning point for Argentina. Guiding it out of a ruinous economic collapse.

Ms. KIRCHNER: (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: Neither you nor I nor anyone is a protagonist, she concludes, adding, we are merely instruments of history. Whether history will record Cristina Kirchner as the presidential candidate of the Peronist Party this year, is now openly debated. Floating her trial balloon, a smartly dressed 54-year-old senator invites inevitable comparisons to First Lady Evita Peron, wife of President Juan Peron, an unofficial saint for millions. Political analyst Felipe Noguera is wary.

Mr. FELIPE NOGUERA (Political Analyst): We've had a long history in Argentina, ever since Eva Peron was banned from running for the vice presidency in 1952, of Peronist first ladies who have always, you know, wanted to be on the power with their husbands and have had very important roles, there is the sort of Evita syndrome.

MCCARTHY: But political commentator Enrique Zuladeposeros(ph) says Senator Cristina is more likely to turn up in New York, Paris, or Caracas emulating not Evita, but another renowned first wife and senator.

Mr. ENRIQUE ZULADEPOSEROS (Political Commentator): She's a lawyer, she can write, she can speak, and she will try to be someone like Hillary Clinton, not like Eva Peron.

Mr. OROZEN DE FRAGAS (Political Analyst): Cristina visit to France, or went out to Ecuador and they will say, yeah, hmm, from some point of view, our chapters of an electoral campaign.

MCCARTHY: Political analyst Orozen de Fragas says the globetrotting Cristina is an established figure in the minds of the electorate, having served in national office longer than her husband. But Fragas says, in order for Cristina to seek the presidency, a chance he puts at 50-50, Nestor Kirchner would be gambling with the thing he values most.

Mr. FRAGAS: He love power. He's all day talking about power, working in power. No sports, no (unintelligible), no movies, no music. Only power.

MCCARTHY: Argentina's economic implosion six years ago has given a way to a bullish recovery. And has sent President Kirchner's approval ratings soaring, despite criticism of him as autocratic. But why at the height of his popularity would a sitting president step aside?

Mr. ZULADEPOSEROS: The second mandate has been always difficult (unintelligible) the Argentine tradition.

MCCARTHY: Pollster Enrique Zuladeposeros says second term presidencies tend to end in tears or in jail. He says Kirchner may be looking to spare himself the anguish and says Cristina is a clever alternative.

Mr. ZULADEPOSEROS: I will see that Cristina is a candidate. They are trying to get the profit of this spirit of change within the framework of Kirchnerism.

MCCARTHY: Argentina's constitution allows incumbents to seek two consecutive four-year terms more than once, but there must be a lapse of at least four years between them. So if Cristina were to run and win this year, her husband could run again four years from now. In theory, the two could rotate presidential power for 16 years. The political officialdom is already primed. Senate Vice President Jose Pampuro talked the other day as if Cristina were Argentina's salvation.

Mr. JOSE PAMPURO (Senate Vice President, Argentina): (Through translator) It would be important for the country for her to make it. It's fresh air and it's an administration with different men and women and new impetus, and the woman president improves our gender balance.

MCCARTHY: Analysts say the lack of a strong opposition has deepened Kirchner's hold on power and Felipe Noguera says that while people might resent Kirchner's sharp style, they fear his absence more.

Mr. NOGUERA: The crisis of 2001, 2002 is still very present.

MCCARTHY: Still Noguera cautions that Cristina Kirchner could face a challenge within the Peronist Party.

Mr. NOGUERA: Because it is one thing for a successful sitting president to say I am very successful, I want to run for a second term, but it is very different for a president to say I will now tell you who you need to vote for. That usually opens up a discussion.

MCCARTHY: President Kirchner remains coy about whether he'll run or she'll run. Nicknamed the penguin, the former governor of one Patagonia frosty states mused that the candidate would be either a penguino or a penguina. Using the Spanish word for penguin in both of its masculine and feminine forms.

All the speculation has the added advantage of focusing nearly exclusive attention on Argentina's first couple.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Buenos Aires.

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