Argentina’s Kirchner shows softer side on campaign trail

May 22, 2009

Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner developed a reputation as a sharp-tongued leader who did not hesitate to upbraid company executives, opposition leaders and journalists as president.

Now, he’s looking to showcase a softer side as he returns to the campaign trail — this time as a candidate for Congress.

His high-profile candidacy has taken center stage in Argentina’s June 28th congressional elections.

Kirchner was succeeded by his wife, President Cristina Fernandez, who is struggling to hold on to a congressional majority by her faction of the ruling Peronist Party.

The former leader’s bid for Congress is aimed at strengthening the left-leaning government’s electoral chances, and in recent days he’s been campaigning in poor and working-class urban areas in Buenos Aires province, the country’s most populous region. It is considered the government’s bastion of support.

The issue of governing style has hung over the Kirchners, who have held power since 2003.

Critics call them confrontational and authoritarian, saying they have never held a Cabinet meeting, regularly criticize the press and leave decision-making to a small circle of aides.

In a political standoff with farmers over export taxes last year, Fernandez lashed out at agricultural producers as “coup plotters” out to keep food from the “tables of the poor” — a tone that left some Argentines bristling. Her popularity fell during the conflict and now stands at around 30 percent.

On the campaign trail, Kirchner appears to be looking to soften that image.

On Thursday, he hugged and kissed supporters as he walked for several blocks in the working-class Los Hornos neighborhood on the outskirts of La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires province.

Dozens of supporters mobbed him, some handing him small pieces of paper with scribbled requests for government help. Leaning in to give hugs, he greeted some women saying “Hola, querida” — Spanish for “Hello, dear”.

He toured a community center supported by the Peronist party. Pictures of the party’s icons, former president Juan Peron and his wife, Evita, hung at the entrance.

That imagery appeals to poor and working-class voters who form the backbone of the couple’s political support.

The former leader’s street campaign comes at a time when Fernandez has also sought to cast herself in a different light.

In a rare interview this week, she talked about the challenges of being a working mother and raising children in the presidential palace.

Recent polls show Kirchner ahead of his nearest rival in the race for a congressional seat representing Buenos Aires province, with between a 2 percentage point and 9 percentage point lead.

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