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Argentine President strengthens support
( 2003-09-15 14:52) (Agencies)

President Nestor Kirchner strengthened his political base Sunday as several candidates backed by the new leader won key municipal and provincial elections.

The victories are likely to help Kirchner consolidate power in his deeply divided Peronist Party and bolster his political standing months after he took office with one of the weakest mandates in history.

A former governor from a remote Patagonian province, Kirchner was catapulted into office in May with just 22 percent of the vote after his Peronist rival, former President Carlos Menem pulled out of the race.

Candidates who the president publicly supported won two of the country's most high-profile and powerful posts, including the mayor of Buenos Aires and the governorship of Buenos Aires, Argentina's largest and wealthiest. Gubernatorial and congressional elections in three other provinces were also held.

In the mayoral election in the capital, independent Anibal Ibarra was re-elected to office, defeating a stiff challenge by the president of one of Argentina's most popular soccer clubs.

Ibarra became the first mayor to serve two consecutive four-year terms since the post was created in 1996.

"This is a confirmation of the political project that the president and I want to carry out both here in Buenos Aires and in the rest of the country," said Ibarra.

In the governor's race in the province of Buenos Aires, current Peronist governor Felipe Sola appeared headed to victory as early results showed him with 47 percent of the vote. The province is home a nearly a third of the national electorate.

The victories by Kirchner-backed candidates will strengthen his support in Congress and among the country's governors, whose cooperation he badly needs to push through his agenda over the next four years.

A Kirchner-backed candidate also won the governorship in his home province of Santa Cruz, and appeared headed to victory in the central province of Chaco and northern Jujuy, early results indicated.

The elections were held only days after Kirchner won praise from many political leaders at home for negotiating a $21 billion debt refinancing plan with the International Monetary Fund to bolster the country's badly slumping economy.

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