President Cristina Fernandez has been re-elected with one of the widest victory margins in Argentine history by persuading voters that she alone, even without her late powerbroker husband, is best able to keep spreading the wealth of an economic boom.
Fernandez had nearly 54 percent of the votes cast in Sunday's election, with nearly 97 percent of polling stations reporting nationwide. Her nearest challenger got just under 17 percent.
"We need everyone to comprehend ... that because of the popular will and this political decision, you can count on me to continue deepening this national project for the 40 million Argentines," she vowed in her victory speeches, first before hundreds and then thousands of supporters Sunday night.
The goal of this "project" is to profoundly change society by using Argentina's resources to raise incomes, create jobs, restore the country's industrial capacity, reduce poverty and maintain an economic boom that has seen the country grow and reduce poverty.
Since she and her predecessor as president, husband Nestor Kirchner, first moved into Argentina's presidential palace in 2003, the income gap between the country's rich and poor has been reduced by nearly half. Meanwhile, according to the International Monetary Fund's numbers for 2002-2011, Argentina's real GDP has grown 94 percent, the fastest in the Western Hemisphere and about twice the rate of Brazil, which also has grown substantially, economist Mark Weisbrot said.
U.S. President Barack "Obama could take a lesson from this," said Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. "It's an old-fashioned message of democracy: You deliver what you promise and people vote for you. It's kind of forgotten here in the U.S."
Fernandez noted that she is Latin America's first woman to be re-elected as president, but described the victory as bittersweet, since Kirchner, who died of a heart attack last Oct. 27, wasn't there to share it.
"This man who transformed Argentina led us all and gave everything he had and more," she said. "Without him, without his valor and courage, it would have been impossible to get to this point."
Thousands of jubilant, flag-waving people crowded into the capital's historic Plaza de Mayo to watch on a huge TV screen as she spoke from a downtown hotel, where her supporters interrupted so frequently with their chants that she lectured them as a mother would her children: "The worst that people can be is small. In history, you always must be bigger still _ more generous, more thoughtful, more thankful."
Then, she showed her teeth, vowing to protect Argentina from outside threats or special interests.
"This woman isn't moved by any interest. The only thing that moves her is profound love for the country. Of that I'm responsible," Fernandez said.
Later, she appeared in the plaza as well, giving a rousing, second victory speech, her amplified voice echoing through the capital as she called on Argentina's youth to dedicate themselves to social projects nationwide.
Fernandez was on track to win a larger share of votes than any president since Argentina's democracy was restored in 1983, when Raul Alfonsin was elected with 52 percent.
Her 36-point-plus lead over Gov. Hermes Binner, who finished second, was wider than any in history save the 1973 victory of her strongman hero, Juan Domingo Peron _ if you count, as many Peronists do, both the 30-point margin he won on the Peronist ticket with his wife Isabel and an additional 7 percent Peron won on a second ticket with a different vice presidential candidate, said Leandro Morganfield, a historian at the University of Buenos Aires.
Fernandez's political coalition also appeared to gain strength in Congress, where it will need to form new alliances to regain the control it lost in 2009. At play were 130 seats in the lower house and 24 in the Senate. Most of the nine governor's races contested Sunday also went to her party.
Fernandez overcame high negative ratings early in her presidency by softening her usually combative tone and proving her ability to command loyalty or respect from an unruly political elite. But she also did it by persuading voters that she will stay the course she and her husband began taking eight years ago.
Fernandez, 58, chose her 48-year-old, guitar-playing, hoodie-wearing economy minister, Amado Boudou, as her running mate and potential successor.
Together, they have championed an Argentine solution to countries facing a debt crisis: nationalize private pensions and use central bank reserves to increase government spending rather than impose austerity measures, and force bondholders to suffer before ordinary citizens.
The candidates debated over how prepared Argentina is for a global slowdown. Declining commodity and trade revenue will make it harder to raise incomes to keep up with inflation. Argentina's central bank is under pressure to spend reserves to maintain the peso's value against the dollar, while also guarding against currency shocks that could threaten Argentina's all-important trade with Brazil.
Fernandez's opposition accused her of failing to contain inflation and crime, of manipulating economic data and using government power to quell criticism.
But most voters didn't seem to care. When Fernandez is inaugurated Dec. 10, her Front for Victory coalition will become the first political bloc to begin a third consecutive presidential term since 1928, when President Hipolito Yrigoyen of the Radical Civic Union took office, only to be toppled by a military coup two years later, Morganfield said.
Fernandez said "we have to think of a different country, where whoever comes builds on top of what's already been done. That's the Argentina I dream of, where we have continuity of national political projects for the country."
Michael Warren can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/mwarrenap