Cristina gets keys to Casa Rosada (from her husband)

The glamorous first lady of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is celebrating a convincing victory in the presidential elections, securing a place in the history books as the first woman to be elected as head of state of her country and completing a most unusual husband-to-wife transfer of power.

With almost all precincts reporting, Mrs Kirchner, a Peronist and senator for the Buenos Aires region, had won 45 per cent of the vote in Sunday's poll, far ahead of the centre-left congresswoman Elisa Carrio and Roberto Lavagna, a former minister in the government of her husband, Nestor Kirchner.

The margin of difference over a gravely fractured opposition was enough to give Mrs Kirchner an outright victory and make a second-round run-off unnecessary. Ms Carrio and Mr Lavagna achieved only 23 per cent and 17 per cent respectively with the rest of the vote shared between 11 other candidates. The low-key race was largely a referendum on the four years served by Mr Kirchner and his success in lifting Argentina from the economic and social collapse of 2001-02. Argentina is about to enter a record sixth year of economic growth and falling rates of poverty and falling unemployment.

Mrs Kirchner has often been compared to Evita, the second wife of strongman Juan Peron, and to Hillary Clinton, another former first lady making a bid to become president. She will become the second woman leader in South America, joining Michelle Bachelet, who was elected in Chile last year. Addressing supporters at a Buenos Aires victory rally, she said she saw her assumption of power in part as an "immense responsibility for my gender". She added: "I want to reach out to all women - to those who have stayed at home, to the factory workers, to the university students, to the professionals and the businesswomen. I know that we can accomplish great work with the special skills that we have."

Mrs Kirchner, 54, gave little away about her policy plans while campaigning, but most observers expect her largely to follow the course of her husband. However, she has shown a greater appetite for a role on the world stage and may seek improved relations with the United States, particularly in the event that Mrs Clinton also clinches victory in the US elections next year.

Most in Argentina believe that Mr and Mrs Kirchner now intend to tag-team the country's highest office, with Nestor positioning himself to run again at the end of his wife's term. Between them they could theoretically hold the keys to the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, for 12 or 16 years. That assumes a great deal, however. Mr Kirchner's once-sky-high popularity was already waning when he announced last summer his intention to step aside in favour of his wife, amid serial corruption scandals and signs of renewed economic strains. His wife will now assume those problems, most notably a rate of inflation that most economists believe is at least twice the 8-9 per cent claimed by the government.

Other problems on the horizon for Argentina include a gathering energy crisis thanks to a three-year freeze on electricity and gas prices, new wage demands from the powerful unions and unresolved foreign debt commitments. Mrs Kirchner, who will be sworn in on 10 December, pledged in her victory speech to forge a social pact between the government, leaders of the main business sectors and the unions jointly to confront Argentina's economic challenges.

Officials of several opposition groups were claiming electoral irregularities. "Each time a citizen went to vote, the voting authority at the table said there aren't ballots for your party," said Patricia Bullrich, the campaign chief for Ms Carrio. Most analysts said the claims were exaggerated, however.

Path to presidency

* Born 19 February 1953 in the city of La Plata, 50 miles south of Buenos Aires and also the birth place of Evita Peron.

* Married Nestor Kirchner in March 1975. They have two children, Maximo and Florencia.

* Political career A lawyer by profession, she was elected twice, in 1989 and 1993, to serve as a deputy in the provincial legislature of Santa Cruz in Patagonia. She was subsequently elected in 1995 and 2001 to represent Santa Cruz in the national senate. Mr Kirchner was governor of Santa Cruz when he ran for the presidency in 2003. Two years after his victory, Mrs Kirchner ran for the Senate, representing the region of Buenos Aires. In July 2007, Mr Nestor confirmed suspicions that he would not run for a second term, deferring to his wife. ( Independent )

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