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Argentines Stress Economic Concerns Ahead of National Elections


Voters in Argentina are preparing to elect a new president, along with legislators and provincial governors. For many voters, economic matters top their list of concerns. In years past, Argentina has endured catastrophic bouts of quadruple-digit inflation. Recent price spikes have put the government on the defensive, including President Nestor Kirchner's hand-picked successor - his wife, First Lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires.

Along the picturesque "caminito" or "little street" in La Boca, a Buenos Aires neighborhood where the tango is said to have originated, dancers perform for a steady stream of camera-snapping foreigners. Tourism has emerged as Argentina's number-one industry as part of a resurgence following the economic meltdown of 2001 that brought a sharp currency devaluation and a default on international loans.

Argentina's economy has averaged robust economic growth rates of eight percent over the last four years. It is an achievement that has fueled the presidential campaign of First Lady and Senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who aims to become Argentina's first female president.

But economic statistics do not impress Buenos Aires retiree Adriana Nunez. She says poverty remains a chronic problem.

Nunez says the misery in this country must end. "There is no work. People cannot survive," she says. "Every day things get worse."

Not everyone is so pessimistic. Accountant Marcelo Mora says economic progress achieved under President Kirchner outweighs any shortcomings.

"Despite the government's mistakes, we are far better off then we were four or five years ago during the crisis," Mora says. "So people are willing to forgive the mistakes."

Pre-election polls give Cristina Fernandez a commanding lead of nearly 30 points over her nearest rival in a field of more than a dozen presidential contenders. During the campaign, Fernandez has highlighted her husband's economic record, and promised to convert those gains into real benefits for all Argentines.

If polls are to be believed, the message seems to be working. Yet clouds have begun to appear on the horizon, most recently in the form of sharp price increases for basic foods like tomatoes.

"Day by day, if we go to the supermarket, we do not get as much [for our money] as we did four years ago or even two years ago," notes Buenos Aires tour guide Claudia Solis. "There is inflation, but the government does not acknowledge it. And that is the fear we have to deal with when deciding who to vote for."

Official Argentine statistics put inflation at just under 10 percent, but many economists say the actual inflation rate is closer to 20 percent.

Claudia Solis says she does not trust the president - or his wife.

"She [Cristina Fernandez] never reveals what she plans to do in office," Solis says. "She does not say how she would control inflation. So we do not know how she would govern."

Solis says she intends to vote for opposition candidate Roberto Lavagna. Until 2005, Lavagna served as President Kirchner's economy minister and describes himself as the true architect of Argentina's economic recovery.

Argentine political and economic analyst Rosendo Fraga says it is no surprise that Argentines stress pocketbook issues at election time.

Fraga says, over the last 70 years, Argentina has experienced an economic crisis, on average, every five years. It is something, he says, people do not forget.

Fraga says so many Argentines worry what will happen in the future. He says the re-emergence of inflation has brought back bad memories of the past. He says the concern is that another crisis could strike during Cristina Fernandez' term in office and derail the current rapid economic expansion.

Even so, Fernandez remains the clear favorite to win Sunday's presidential contest. To avoid a run-off, she would need to secure 45 percent of the vote, or get 40 percent with a 10 point lead over the second place finisher. Recent polls show Fernandez exceeding the 40 percent threshold - with her nearest rival polling at less than 20 percent.

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