* Senate to vote on bill to lower voting age to 16
* President has promoted young activists, courted youth vote
* Critics see government-led reform as electoral ploy
By Helen Popper
BUENOS AIRES, Oct 17 Argentina's Senate is expected to pass a bill on Wednesday to lower the voting age to 16 from 18 in time for a crucial mid-term election that may determine whether President Cristina Fernandez can seek a third term.
Fernandez, who backs the bill to extend voting rights, has given prominent state jobs to members of a youth group founded by her son, Maximo, and often praises young activists for their political fervor.
Many young Argentines identify with the president's defiant style and credit her unorthodox policies for a long economic boom that coincided with them joining the labor market following an acute 2001-2002 financial crisis.
But critics of the government say the reform appears to be a thinly veiled vote-winning tactic aimed at bolstering waning support before the legislative election scheduled for October 2013.
"We have a precedent of electoral reforms that have served to increase the ruling party's chances rather than improve the electoral system, so this bill leaves me with many doubts," said leftist opposition Senator Norma Morandini.
Supporters, however, say the amendment will strengthen democracy and bring Argentina in line with other nations that have already extended voting rights to the young.
Austria, Nicaragua, Brazil and Ecuador are among the countries that allow those 16 and older to vote.
"It's absurd to say this is politically motivated," said Elena Corregido, a ruling party senator who co-authored the bill. "They (opponents) always say it's not the right time or that there's political speculation but in reality this deepens the democratic process we're experiencing."
Some opposition lawmakers also plan to vote in favor of the bill, which Corregido said should soon pass to the lower house and become law next month.
Controversy over the reform proposal has been heightened because of speculation over whether Fernandez could follow in the footsteps of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez by trying to reform the constitution in order to run for re-election in 2015.
Analysts say it is unlikely she would be able to secure the two-thirds congressional support needed to convoke an elected constitutional assembly.
Fernandez has been coy about the prospect of running for another term, even if permitted to do so, but any such plan hinges on the outcome of the mid-term vote.
Most political analysts say lowering the voting age is unlikely to have a major impact on results - no more than one or two percentage points - although they agree that the government and leftist parties stand to gain the most.
The change would likely increase the number of voters by up to about 1.4 million voters depending on turnout. Almost 23 million Argentines voted in last year's presidential ballot.
"We're talking about a fairly small percentage and they're not all going to vote for Cristina Fernandez," said pollster and political analyst Graciela Romer. "In the last elections, her youth vote was above average but it wasn't an avalanche either."
Fernandez's allies control Congress, but opinion polls show her approval ratings have dropped this year due to a slowing economy and middle-class anger over increasingly offbeat policies like a virtual ban on buying U.S. dollars.
That means it could be difficult for Fernandez's allies to push a constitutional reform even with the small boost expected from extending voting rights to youths aged 16 and 17.
"People aren't keen on re-election," Romer said. "That's not because they reject Cristina's re-election but because they reject the concept itself."