BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentine President Cristina Fernandez has lost her husband and closest adviser, but his death may give her a political opportunity by throwing rivals off balance less than a year from the next election.
The sudden departure last week of former President Nestor Kirchner has turned politics on its head in South America’s No. 2 economy. He had been expected to run again for president next October, taking over from his wife just as she succeeded him in 2007, so Fernandez may now seek re-election herself.
Markets rallied following Kirchner’s death, sensing an end in sight to the couple’s combative style and unorthodox economic policies such as sudden nationalizations, the under-reporting of inflation data and grains export curbs.
But with the economy booming, and her solid approval ratings likely to get a sympathy boost, Fernandez may see little reason to change course, especially if she can shore up the backing of ruling Peronist party bigwigs who control the vote-winning machinery.
So far, the notoriously fickle mayors of the suburbs that circle Buenos Aires, Peronism’s heartland and a region vital to national electoral success, are pledging loyalty to Fernandez.
Peronism has long been about the power to win votes and mobilize the masses, so last week’s scenes of tens of thousands of people queuing to catch a glimpse of Kirchner’s coffin and rallying to support Fernandez may make rebels think twice.
“After that display, no one can question the president’s legitimacy and that she is not only our president, but our political leader,” said Fernando Espinoza, mayor of La Matanza, which has a population of more than 1.3 million and is a treasured prize for politicians on the campaign trail.
La Matanza, a working-class district in the Buenos Aires outskirts is a stronghold of Peronism, which is named after former President Gen. Juan Peron and draws inspiration from his wife Evita.
Fernandez may look for a replacement to take on her husband’s power broker role in the couple’s trusted inner circle, such as cabinet chief Anibal Fernandez, who also served under former President Eduardo Duhalde, an opposition figure.
Her choice will be crucial. Any failure to keep Peronist leaders on her side could hamper her government in the last year of her term and kill off her chances of re-election.
“There are lots of ambitious people who feared Nestor and we’ll have to see if she can keep all that as controlled as he did,” said Argentine political consultant Freddy Thomsen.
“We will want to see who she relies on for advice because Nestor did so much of that,” he added.
One of the biggest challenges may be reining in trade union leader Hugo Moyano, whose growing power, wealth and influence within the government has been sounding alarm bells elsewhere in Peronist party ranks.
In the months before he died, Kirchner was said to be under intense pressure from Moyano, who controls the truck drivers union and heads the Peronist party in Buenos Aires province.
Truckers have the potential to bring the country to a standstill and stop the key grains exports reaching port. Some analysts say that for that reason, Kirchner opted to keep Moyano close, but Fernandez may try a less cozy approach.
“The only person I‘m married to is Nestor Kirchner,” Fernandez said days before her husband’s death, a comment some local media interpreted as an allusion to Moyano.
While Kirchner’s death deprives Fernandez of her closest ally, it has also disoriented a breakaway Peronist faction looking to take back control of the party and gearing up to challenge Kirchner in next year’s election.
Even if the likely sympathy vote for Fernandez fades long before polling, the so-called Federal Peronists could find it harder to gain traction with Kirchner out of the equation.
Kirchner was widely seen as the more confrontational of the couple and critics portrayed him as a murky figure calling the shots from behind the scenes. Although credited with pulling Argentina out of a deep recession and financial crisis when he was president from 2003-2007, his approval ratings have in the last year trailed those of his wife.
“The Federals have nothing to add now,” said Julio Barbaro, a prominent Peronist and former official, who also dismissed the possible candidacy of Buenos Aires Gov. Daniel Scioli -- a moderate acceptable to business leaders and the dissidents.
“I can’t see the government giving (Scioli) anything he doesn’t deserve,” Barbaro said, though he did urge Fernandez to seek greater consensus in the party.
A week after Kirchner’s death stunned the country, Argentines and curious tourists are still taking photographs of the roses and handwritten condolence letters tied by supporters to the railings in front of the pink presidential palace.
For older Peronists, last week’s scenes have stirred memories of the death of General Peron in 1974, and that could help Fernandez be accepted as Peronism’s new figurehead.
“We must support her and vote for her again,” said housewife Haydee Rios, 63, reading the fading messages. “(But) she needs to differentiate herself and wipe the slate clean.”
Editing by Kieran Murray