by Andres Oppenheimer

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's impressive victory in the recent primary election makes it almost certain that she will be easily re-elected in October, but she is not likely to follow the Venezuelan model and try to change the constitution to seek indefinite re-elections.

Contrary to what some opposition politicians claim, she won't have the power -- and may not have the will -- to stay in power beyond her second term, according to several political insiders I talked to in recent days. What's more, she will face an avalanche of economic and political problems as soon as she starts her new term, they say.

The margin of the president's Sunday victory stunned even her most optimistic backers. She won more than 50 percent of the vote in the national primary, with her closest challenger Ricardo Alfonsin far behind with 12 percent.

While she was expected to win, few analysts had anticipated such a wide margin. Her government had been tainted by several corruption scandals in recent months, and had lost key local elections in the past two years.

But many Argentines who are benefiting from Fernández de Kirchner's populist policies, including cash subsidies to millions, decided not to back opposition candidates who they feared could take away their government handouts.

In addition, Fernández de Kirchner projected a more conciliatory image than her late husband, former President Nestor Kirchner, and drew sympathy from many sectors of the population for her personal drama of having to lead a nation while mourning her spouse.

"A widow is not somebody who's going to hurt you," opposition pollster Jaime Duran Barba told me, noting that the president campaigned wearing black. "A widow is somebody who's harmless, with whom it's easy to empathize."

Ideology played little or no role in voters' preferences, Duran Barba added. A national poll he conducted earlier this year showed that a whopping 90 percent of Argentines responded "I don't care" when asked if they preferred their next president to be to the "left" or "right" of the political spectrum.

Asked about speculation by some that she would follow counterparts in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, and try to change the constitution to seek unlimited re-elections, some of her former closest advisers told me they don't think that will happen.

Alberto Fernández, a former chief of staff of Fernández de Kirchner, told me that "She will not seek to change the constitution because that's not in her mindset." He added, "She will try to leave power like (former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio) Lula da Silva, with the election of a protégé of hers."

In addition, even if she wins 50 percent of the vote in October, Fernández de Kirchner would not have the majority in Congress she would need to change the constitution and seek a third term. Her Peronist party would control less than half of the 247-seat Chamber of Deputies, and many of her party's legislators report to provincial governors and other party bosses who will want to seek the presidency for themselves, other political analysts told me.

My opinion: It will be very hard for Fernández de Kirchner to seek a constitutional change to stay in power indefinitely, for political and economic reasons.

Politically, as soon as she takes office, she will be seen as a lame duck president by the powerful political bosses of her Peronist party. They would not allow their loyalists in Congress to vote for constitutional changes that would allow the current president to stay in power.

Economically, she will not have enough money to buy her party bosses' support for such a project. Fernández de Kirchner's government has already spent well beyond its means in recent years, to the point that many economists fear she will have to start cutting subsidies within the next two years.

To make things worse for her, Argentina's one-time financial rescuer -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez -- has his own financial and health problems.

For the foreseeable future, Fernández de Kirchner will have her hands full trying to keep Argentina's economy afloat, and to avoid an economic collapse. She won't have the means nor the power to embark on more ambitious plans, which is good for Argentina -- and for her.

 

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