By Helen Popper
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina's Senate easily approved a bill on Wednesday to lower the voting age to 16 from 18 in time for a crucial midterm election that may determine whether President Cristina Fernandez can seek a third term.
Fernandez, who backs the bill to extend voting rights, has given prominent state jobs to members of a youth group founded by her son, Maximo, and often praises young activists for their political fervor.
Many young Argentines identify with the president's defiant style and credit her unorthodox policies for a long economic boom that coincided with their entry into the labor market following a 2001-2002 financial crisis.
The vote passed by 52-3 with two abstentions and is expected to receive lower-house approval and become law next month.
Fernandez's supporters say the amendment will strengthen democracy and bring Argentina in line with nations such as Austria, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Brazil that have already extended voting rights to people as young as 16.
"We're going through an extraordinary time in Argentina where we can discuss everything and we're advancing in the extension of civil rights," said Elena Corregido, a ruling party senator who co-authored the bill.
Despite the strong vote in favor of the reform, some opposition senators say it appears a thinly veiled vote-winning tactic aimed at bolstering waning support for the president before the legislative election scheduled for October 2013.
"We have a precedent of electoral reforms that have served to increase the ruling party's chances rather than improve the electoral system, so this bill leaves me with many doubts," said leftist opposition Senator Norma Morandini, who abstained.
Controversy over the reform proposal has been heightened by speculation over whether Fernandez could follow in the footsteps of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez by trying to reform the constitution in order to run for re-election in 2015.
HOW MUCH OF AN IMPACT?
Fernandez currently has a working majority in both houses of Congress, but would need two-thirds' congressional support to convoke an elected constitutional assembly.
The president has been coy about the prospect of running for another term, even if permitted to do so, but any such plan would hinge on the outcome of the midterm vote.
Most political analysts say lowering the voting age is unlikely to have a major impact on results - no more than 1 or 2 percentage points - although they agree that the government and leftist parties stand to gain the most.
The change would likely increase the number of voters by up to about 1.4 million voters depending on turnout. Almost 23 million Argentines voted in last year's presidential election.
"We're talking about a fairly small percentage and they're not all going to vote for Cristina Fernandez," said pollster and political analyst Graciela Romer. "In the last elections, her youth vote was above average but it wasn't an avalanche either."
Opinion polls show Fernandez's approval ratings have dropped this year due to a slowing economy and middle-class anger over policies such as a virtual ban on buying U.S. dollars.
That means it could be difficult for her congressional allies to push a constitutional reform even with the small boost expected from extending voting rights to youths aged 16 and 17.
"People aren't keen on re-election," Romer said. "That's not because they reject Cristina's re-election but because they reject the concept itself."
(Editing by Kieran Murray and Peter Cooney)