A brisk economic recovery is lifting Argentine President Cristina Fernandez's approval ratings from lows of about 20 percent, improving her husband's chances of returning to the presidency next year.
Fernandez took over from her husband and predecessor, former President Nestor Kirchner, in late 2007, but their hopes that he could return to power seemed dim last year as the economy stagnated and their popularity ratings languished.
However, three pollsters say her approval rating has jumped to between 29 percent and 36 percent over the last four months as Latin America's No. 3 economy roars back to life.
The combative Fernandez, who fell out of favor with voters over her handling of a 2008 tax revolt by farmers, is also getting a boost from the opposition's failure to unite and achieve major policy victories since gaining ground in Congress in a mid-term election last year.
"There has definitely been a recovery and it's been fast. What isn't clear is whether it's a strong or sustained trend," said Sergio Berensztein, director of the Buenos Aires-based Poliarquia consulting firm.
Berensztein and political analyst Jorge Giacobbe both say Fernandez and Kirchner's approval ratings have risen to 29 percent in recent months, although the couple still face a rate of rejection of between 60 percent and 70 percent.
The center-left Kirchners have increased state control over the economy, nationalizing private pension funds and soccer broadcasts, imposed some import barriers and also stepped up intervention in financial and grains markets.
Kirchner ruled during Argentina's rebound from the deep 2001-2002 crisis, overseeing a five-year economic boom that helped his wife win an easy victory in the presidential election of 2007.
Things quickly started to go wrong for Fernandez. Voters rejected her confrontational style, especially during the conflict with farmers, and she has been hurt by inflation that remained high during last year's slowdown.
However, she has fought back in recent months, cranking up welfare for poor children and pensioners as she seeks to shore up her support base: union workers and the urban poor in populous Buenos Aires province, which rings the capital.
Cars, soy spur recobery
That has coincided with a buoyancy in the economy, which barely grew last year due to the global downturn. Now car exports to giant neighbor Brazil have picked up, and a record soy crop is generating foreign exchange income. The economy is expected to grow at least 5 percent this year.
At the same time, no clear presidential contender has emerged among opposition politicians.
Hopefuls include Buenos Aires' center-right mayor, Mauricio Macri, of the Union PRO political party, and Carlos Reutemann, a senator and former governor from a dissident faction of Fernandez's Peronist party.
Fernandez's rogue vice president, Julio Cobos, is one of the country's most popular politicians.
He has become a leading opposition voice since he sided with the farmers in the conflict over taxes, and is expected to rejoin the Radical Civic Union party to run for president.
Despite the improvement in Fernandez's approval numbers, pollsters say the Kirchners are far from establishing a lead. Giacobbe said they have not been able to win over the 60 percent of Argentines who reject a leadership style marked by fiery speeches attacking the media and political opponents.
That suggests the presidential pair may have picked up support from previously undecided voters, rather than winning opposition votes.
So far no hopeful is polling near the 40 percent level, with a 10-point lead, which is what is needed to win a presidential election in Argentina.
Ipsos Mora y Araujo says the approval ratings for the Kirchners are moving back into that range, at about 36 percent, up from 28 percent at the end of last year.
"The next measurement is the one that will show whether it goes up to 38 percent or 39 percent or if it goes back down," said Santiago Rossi, director of Ipsos Mora y Araujo.
"That's when we'll really see if it's a trend because since the farm crisis it's never been above 36 percent," he said, adding that inflation and perceptions of high crime are the issues that will define next year's vote.
Private estimates forecast inflation this year at between 23 percent and 30 percent, much higher than official numbers, which are currently running about 12 percent annual inflation.
ReutersLast Mod: 05 Haziran 2010, 11:03