/ 28 October 2007

First lady of Argentina ready to be the new Evita

Cristina Kirchner is poised to triumph in Argentina’s presidential election on Sunday after a radical makeover that has redefined political glamour.

The first lady and frontrunner has transformed herself into a style pin-up, but her designer suits, spiky heels, extensive make-up and alleged cosmetic surgery became campaign issues when rivals dubbed her the ”Queen of Botox” and questioned its appropriateness for a head of state.

Supporters said the accusations were sexist and that Kirchner, a lawyer turned senator and formidable political operator, had blazed a trail for women to celebrate their femininity regardless of age and position.

Kirchner said the critics’ target was her pro-poor, populist platform. ”In reality, they aren’t bothered by my make-up or my hair. They are bothered because we’ve threatened their interests.”

The fuss has diverted attention from the fate of one of South America’s biggest but most fragile economies as millions of voters, from Patagonia to the Amazon, cast their ballots.

Opinion polls put the wife of incumbent president Nestor Kirchner on 43% and a wide enough lead over divided rivals to clinch victory in the first round. Her support is built on the government’s success — with the first lady a key player — in steering the economy out of the 2002 financial meltdown.

La Cristina, as she is known, would be Argentina’s first elected woman president. The 54-year-old mother of two would also be one of the world’s most striking leaders, with a neon glamour to light up international summits dominated by elderly men in dark suits. Other female leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, Chile’s Michelle Bachelet and Hillary Clinton appear conservative beside her.

Politician makeovers are nothing new: Ronald Reagan dyed his hair; Silvio Berlusconi got a hair transplant and facial surgery. Rumours swirl around many other leaders, but cosmetic enhancement is usually played down or denied.

Kirchner’s dramatically altered appearance leaves little room for coyness. As a young senator, she was considered smartly dressed and attractive, but relatively low-key.

That began to change when her husband was elected president in 2003. As he presided over a rapid economic recovery, his wife, like him a powerful force within the Peronist movement, sported more make-up, jewellery, designer outfits and accessories such as wide belts, lacy fans and red berets.

”She was more real as a person when she was a lowly senator,” said Silvina Walger, an Argentinian journalist who has closely followed Kirchner’s evolution. ”But now she has transformed herself.”

By the time Nestor Kirchner announced he was stepping down to let his wife run, observers said she had fuller lips, tighter skin and a more lustrous auburn mane, prompting speculation about surgery and hair extensions.

It remains an open question whether this was a personal decision to offset the effects of age, a political strategy to court votes in an aesthetic-obsessed era, or both.

Newspapers gleefully reported that on foreign trips she brought large trunks of clothes and fashion helpers, and changed her outfit up to four times a day. Critics said the makeover was an effort to evoke the magic of Eva Peron, the icon who died in 1952 aged just 33.

”Eva was a political heroine, a real queen, not a Botox queen,” said Elisa Carrio, a rival and the expected runner-up in Sunday’s election. Carrio, a former beauty queen, has depicted her weight-gain and cheap clothes as evidence that she is the more genuine candidate.

Kirchner’s supporters said she had every right to look gorgeous, especially in a vain country where men and women assiduously check out their reflections in shop windows. Nobody doubts Kirchner is intelligent and tough. She was an outspoken human rights lawyer and moved up the Peronist ranks with a combative, confident style. Her speeches are fluent, passionate and delivered without notes or autocue.

Reagan and Berlusconi were mocked over their enhancements, but not defined by them: the shock over the cleavage shown by Hillary Clinton and Britain’s Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, show that women face greater scrutiny.

Argentina’s election apathy has compounded the focus on appearance. As the runaway favourite, Kirchner’s strategy has been to treat her campaign, which has been brazenly backed by state resources, as a coronation. She has shunned the media and offered platitudes in place of policies.

No one knows how she will tackle inflation, energy shortages and poverty, problems that economists warn are graver than they appear. Some go so far as to call the current boom a facade. In which case, the shiny artifice Argentinians should worry about is not the candidate, but the country. — Guardian Unlimited Â