By Hugh Bronstein
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Voting started in Argentina on Sunday as center-left President Cristina Fernandez appeared ready to win a blowout re-election victory that could lead to more state intervention in the economy.
The combative 58-year-old leader has had a dramatic comeback from low approval ratings that dogged her for much of her first term. She has been helped by an economy growing at about 8 percent annually and a field of feeble opposition candidates.
Polls show Fernandez taking a landslide victory on Sunday, with enough votes to avoid a runoff. That would give her a mandate to continue with policies that have riled pro-market farmers and business leaders. She may also regain the control of Congress that she lost in the 2009 mid-term election.
The sharp-tongued former senator has nationalized private pension funds, raised taxes on soy exports and kept quotas on wheat and corn shipments. Growers say such interventionist measures dampen much-needed investment in agriculture, which is the country's top source of hard currency.
Fernandez won more than 50 percent of the vote in an August primary that served as a giant opinion poll because all parties had already chosen their candidates.
Surveys say she has since widened her lead over rivals such as Hermes Binner, a socialist provincial governor who is a distant second in most polls.
To win re-election on Sunday, Fernandez needs at least 45 percent of the vote or just 40 percent with a lead of 10 percentage points over her closest rival.
Fernandez vows to dedicate her second term to the memory of her husband, Nestor Kirchner, who preceded her as president and whose sudden death last year sparked a wave of public sympathy. "Strength Cristina!" became her supporters' rallying cry after his death.
Kirchner is credited by many for getting Argentina's economy on its feet after a devastating 2001/02 financial crisis. Fernandez plans to "deepen" their economic model in her second term.
Fernandez often tears up when speaking about "him," not needing to say Kirchner's name for people to understand.
"I am sure of the support that Cristina has because she made history along with her beloved Nestor," 35-year-old office worker Cesar Brunelli said while walking to his polling station in a Buenos Aires suburb.
"The opposition has a lot to learn about politics," Brunelli said.
An elegant dresser with a taste for high heels, Fernandez struggled with approval ratings of about 20 percent in 2008, when her feud with farmers exploded in massive protests. Profits driven by high grains prices have since calmed growers, and many rural areas voted for Fernandez in the primary.
Twenty-four Senate seats are up for grabs on Sunday and 130 seats in the lower house. Most political analysts expect Fernandez to win back congressional control.
Speculation has grown in recent weeks that Fernandez, who has no clear successor, could try to reform the constitution to allow her to run again in 2015. The constitution can only be changed with a two-thirds majority in Congress.
Other South American leaders -- from Colombia to Ecuador to Venezuela -- have in recent years changed laws to give them more time in power. Some experts say just keeping the option open would allow Fernandez to avoid becoming a "lame duck" in her second term.
"Keeping alive the possibility of a constitutional reform, while controversial, is a sound strategy to preserve power," said Ignacio Labaqui, a Buenos Aires-based analyst with emerging markets consultancy Medley Global Advisors.
Argentina is now one of the world's fastest-growing economies, and despite double-digit inflation, voters who remember the hyperinflation of the late 1980s and the 2001/02 crisis say things could be far worse.
"Inflation is a big problem, but we've always had inflation," said Nadia Berra, 29, a Buenos Aires hotel manager who remembers "inflation" being one of the first words she learned when she was little.
"Cristina is the least bad option out there," Berra said.
(Additional reporting by Jorge Otaola; Editing by Kieran Murray and Bill Trott)