By Helen Popper
BUENOS AIRES, Oct 23 (Reuters) - Argentine President Cristina Fernandez is expected to win easy re-election for another four years on Sunday, a result that would give her a strong mandate to deepen her unorthodox economic policies.
Opinion polls suggest she could win more than 50 percent of the vote with a massive lead over a fragmented field of opposition challengers. Socialist Hermes Binner has emerged as the second-placed candidate.
Here are brief profiles of the most prominent candidates and their policy proposals:
Center-left Fernandez has deepened the policies started in 2003 by her husband and predecessor as president, Nestor Kirchner, whose death a year ago played a key role in reversing her political fortunes. She has built on an outpouring of public sympathy following his death and her approval ratings stand at about 60 percent, compared with lows of about 20 percent in the middle of her four-year term.
A buoyant economy, falling unemployment and a more conciliatory tone also have helped her recover from a messy conflict with farmers in 2008 and a brief slowdown at the height of the global financial crisis. Sizzling economic growth running at about 9 percent has made it difficult for the opposition to challenge her, although analysts say a second term could prove stormy as a deteriorating global outlook raises questions about the sustainability of loose fiscal and monetary policies. It could force her to rein in the rapid state spending growth and wage hikes that have stoked consumer activity -- seen as a pillar of her popularity.
She vows to put the state at the heart of the economy, pledging to deepen unorthodox policies such as trade restrictions, currency intervention and price controls that rile pro-market business leaders and farmers in the leading global grains exporter. However, she has made few concrete policy proposals. A member of the historically pragmatic Peronist party, Fernandez is not expected to alter policy unless circumstances force her to change tack.
Tight finances might prompt her to do more to improve the country’s reputation on Wall Street, paving the way for a return to credit markets for the first time since the country’s $100 billion debt default in 2002. Financial markets have factored in a Fernandez victory but they will be watching for any progress to repay some $9 billion to the Paris Club of creditor nations or to restore credibility to official inflation data that is way below private estimates.
Capital flight accelerated in the run-up to the election due to expectations of a steeper depreciation of the peso currency to maintain competitiveness. State subsidies on energy and public transport may be trimmed in the next few years as a way to cut public spending.
Speculation has grown in recent months that Fernandez could try to reform the constitution to allow her to seek re-election in 2015, although officials deny this.
Binner, governor of Santa Fe province and a doctor, is the first Socialist to head a provincial government and is well respected in the central agro-industrial region, home to the Rosario grains export hub. The latest opinion polls have shown Binner moving into a distant second place ahead of social-democratic congressman Ricardo Alfonsin. He has sought to bill himself as a less populist, leftist option and highlighted his experience governing a key province.
A moderate leftist, Binner has campaigned on the “warning signs” showing in the country’s economic boom and accused the government of being ill-prepared to face global economic turmoil. He has denied his congressional allies would support any government-backed drive to reform the constitution to allow a third consecutive term. Binner, said to be the government’s preferred opposition leader, pledges to raise pensions and put more emphasis on provincial interests. He says inflation and a lack of investor confidence are the biggest economic problems.
Alfonsin rose to prominence after the death two years ago of his father, former President Raul Alfonsin, who led Argentina between 1983 and 1989. He has lost ground in the polls in the past two months and has struggled to capture voters’ attention on the campaign trail.
His decision to team up with center-right congressman Francisco De Narvaez in the key district of Buenos Aires province proved unpopular with traditional Radical party voters and leftist supporters. He has support of less than 10 percent in most polls.
A maverick governor and member of the dissident Peronist wing, Rodriguez Saa has dominated politics for years in his home province of San Luis with his brother Adolfo, who served as Argentina’s president for a week during the 2001-02 crisis.
Like Binner, Rodriguez Saa has gained ground in recent weeks, apparently stealing support from fellow right-leaning Peronist Eduardo Duhalde but he still trails fourth in most opinion polls.
Duhalde, who governed briefly as Argentina emerged from the acute economic crisis in 2001-02, was once a backer of Kirchner but they fell out and Duhalde is now a prominent figure in the dissident ranks of the ruling Peronist party. Duhalde has a high rejection rating but remains an influential figure in Peronism because of his links with powerful mayors in the working-class suburbs of Buenos Aires. However, his poll ratings have waned in the run-up to Sunday’s vote.