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Argentine leader's wife set to win vote, take over

Argentina's ruling Peronist Party is deeply divided and no one knows what it stands for anymore but it will almost certainly retain its grip on power in the October 28 presidential election.
Argentina Ecuador
Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, right, and first lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner welcome Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa near Buenos Aires on Sept. 20 during a two-day visit.Eduardo Di Baia / AP
/ Source: Reuters

Argentina's ruling Peronist Party is deeply divided and no one knows what it stands for anymore but it will almost certainly retain its grip on power in the Oct. 28 presidential election.

Founded by Argentine strongman Gen. Juan Peron more than 60 years ago, the party is gripped by infighting and ideological splits, and three Peronists have jumped into the presidential race.

In a sign of the divide, front-runner first lady and Peronist senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has chosen her running mate from the party's traditional rival: the Radical Civic Union.

Still, Argentines — who in the same breath often voice support and disdain for the ruling party — see it as the only one capable of governing a country prone to political and economic turmoil.

"Argentines, including those who are not Peronists, credit them with knowing how to use their power against a weak opposition," said historian Felipe Pigna.

Peronists have won seven of the nine presidential races the party has contested and Peronist presidents have a record of completing their terms, while leaders from other parties have had to bow out early amid political or economic chaos.

Peronism is an ideological grab bag and has no formal leadership, conventions or primary elections, leaving its many factions to draw up competing platforms and field rival candidates.

Faction building
President Nestor Kirchner anointed his wife as candidate in next month's election and she is expected to win easily, even with leaders of two other Peronist factions running on their own tickets.

Historian Mario "Pacho" O'Donnell says Peronism's success lies with its aggressive divide-and-rule politics.

"This has been really clear during the Kirchner government, which was really efficient at tearing apart the opposition, supporting some factions inside other parties and in many cases co-opting them with economic measures," he said.

The lure of government posts or funds for municipal or provincial works has seen dozens of local opposition politicians ally themselves with the Kirchners.

In the 1940s, Peron blended a fierce nationalism with support for workers, improving wages and state pensions and building up unions until they were almost an arm of the government.

A cult of personality built up around him and his glamorous wife Eva "Evita" Duarte, who is still adored for her charity hospitals.

Peron was ousted in a 1955 coup and went into exile, but returned to power in the early-1970s before dying in office.

A new brand of Peronism returned in the 1990s under two-time President Carlos Menem who pegged the currency to the dollar and privatized dozens of state enterprises.

The economy collapsed after Menem left office but Peronism survived the desperate mood of 2001 when Argentines turned against politicians and chanted "kick them all out" on the streets.

Business, society pact touted
The Kirchner power couple is reminiscent of Juan and Evita but they mostly avoid classic Peronist rhetoric and talk of a new model based on a pact between business and society.

The Kirchners are seen as center-left while Alberto Rodriguez Saa, a provincial governor who is also running for president, promotes free market economic reforms.

The original Peronism emphasized protecting Argentine industries from foreign competition, but Rodriguez Saa says Peronism has evolved to support open economies.

"I feel part of all the Peronist traditions. I'm a conservative politician in Argentine traditions and as far as social issues I'm an absolutely orthodox Peronist: I prioritize social justice for workers," he told Reuters.

Yet another Peronist presidential candidate, Kirchner's former economy minister Roberto Lavagna, is also center-left.

"Today the Peronist identity doesn't really mean anything," Pigna, the historian, said.