President Cristina Fernandez, buoyed by Argentina's booming economy, was re-elected by a landslide Sunday, exit polls predicted.
The polls aid Fernandez won 54 percent to 55 percent of the votes cast — the widest victory margin for any Argentine president since democracy was restored in the country three decades ago.
Victory will make Fernandez the first woman re-elected as president in Latin America. But it is bittersweet for her personally. It's the first in a lifetime of politics for the populist leader without her husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, who died of a heart attack last Oct. 27.
Her voice almost broke earlier in the day when she spoke about this legacy, describing a mixture of pride and sorrow after casting her ballot in his hometown, the remote Patagonian city of Rio Gallegos.
"In this world where they have criticized us so forcefully, all this makes me feel very proud, that we're on the right track," she said. Kirchner "would be very content."
Fernandez could have won with as little as 40 percent of the vote if none of her rivals came within 10 percentage points of her. In the end, exit polls published in Argentine media indicated she would win by about 40 points over socialist Gov. Hermes Binner, the closest of six rival candidates.
Her Front for Victory coalition hoped to regain enough seats in Congress to form new alliances and regain the control it lost in 2009. At play were 130 seats in the lower house and 24 in the Senate.
Fernandez's poll numbers had dipped during the early years of her presidency, but she reversed the negatives as a widow, softening her usually combative tone and proving her ability to govern on her own by ensuring loyalty or respect from an unruly political elite.
Many voters polled beforehand said they were backing her because their financial situations have improved as Argentina enjoys one of its longest spells of economic growth in history.
While official results were not expected until hours after polls closed Sunday night, Fernandez appeared to have won a larger share of votes than any president since Argentina's democracy was restored in 1983, when Raul Alfonsin was elected with 52 percent. She would still trail her strongman hero, Juan Domingo Peron, who won with 60 percent and 63 percent in his last two elections.
Fernandez, 58, chose her youthful, guitar-playing, long-haired economy minister, Amado Boudou, as her running mate. Together, the pair championed Argentina's approach to the global financial crisis: Increase government spending rather than impose austerity measures, and force investors in foreign debt to suffer before ordinary citizens.
Boudou was waiting for official results before declaring victory. Well after the polls closed, he tweeted: "Thanks to all the Argentines for this day of celebration, without violance and with love for the country. Now, to await the results."
Argentina has been closed off from most international lending since declaring its world-record debt default in 2001, but has been able to sustain booming growth ever since.
The country faces tough challenges in 2012, however. Its commodities exports are vulnerable to a global recession, and economic growth is forecast to slow sharply in the coming year. Declining revenues will make it harder to raise incomes to keep up with inflation. Argentina's central bank is under pressure to spend reserves to maintain the peso's value against the dollar, while also guarding against currency shocks that could threaten Argentina's all-important trade with Brazil.
Boudou could now win attention as a potential successor to Fernandez, but navigating these storms will require much skill and good fortune.
Opposition candidates blamed Fernandez for rising inflation and increasing crime and accused her of politically manipulating economic data and trying to use government power to quell media criticism.
They also said the government was failing to prepare Argentina for another global economic crisis.
"It's not clear where the world is headed. It's better to be prepared. This isn't achieved with conflict, but through dialogue," Binner said as he voted.
In addition to Binner, 68, a doctor and governor of Santa Fe province, the other presidential candidates were Ricardo Alfonsin, 59, a lawyer and congressional deputy with the traditional Radical Civic Union party and son of the former president; Alberto Rodriguez Saa, 52, an attorney and governor of San Luis province whose brother Adolfo was president for a week; Eduardo Duhalde, who preceded Kirchner as president; leftist former lawmaker Jorge Altamira, 69, and Elisa Carrio 54, a congresswoman who came in second behind Fernandez four years ago but trailed the field this time.
Voting is obligatory in Argentina, and nearly 29 million citizens among the 40 million population were registered.
Fernandez said Interior Minister Florencio Randazzo, who is responsible for managing the election process, told her that turnout was strong and everything was going smoothly.
"I've been a political activist my whole life, but I haven't always been able to vote," Fernandez said, referring to the 1966-1973 and 1976-1983 dictatorships, which tried and failed to eliminate Peronism as an electoral force. "To be able to vote freely in the Argentine republic is an achievement."
Michael Warren can be reached at www.twitter.com/mwarrenap