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BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina's government is fighting to get a gay marriage bill through Congress to shore up its leftist credentials ahead of a 2011 vote and to steal the limelight from opposition-led proposals.
The Senate is due to vote next week on gay marriage, which would give homosexual couples the right to adopt children. If the measure passes, Argentina would be one of just a handful of countries to have such a law.
But even if opponents and religious groups succeed in blocking the bill, the debate has allowed the government to divert attention from popular opposition proposals that could become a major headache for President Cristina Fernandez, such as a steep hike in pension payments.
"This allows the government to always be center stage," said Roberto Bacman, a sociologist and pollster. "They want to show they are the true center-left, forcing the opposition to move to the right in the upcoming national election."
Fernandez and her husband and predecessor, former President Nestor Kirchner, have depicted gay marriage as a matter of human rights, an issue dear to them that has helped win support from some middle-class voters and broaden their base beyond the urban poor.
Kirchner, a congressman now and head of the Peronist Party's ruling faction, told reporters on Thursday: "I have an absolutely clear conscience, having voted in favor of equal marriage rights."
The couple's push for gay marriage has cut across party lines and helps them position themselves as the most viable leftist option ahead of an October 2011 election, in which Kirchner is expected to run for president after serving from 2003 to 2007.
Fernandez lost her majority in Congress last year as voters shaken by the global economic crisis punished the Kirchners for their confrontational style, which came to the fore during a months-long tax dispute with farmers in 2008.
Some leftist voters were also turned off by Fernandez's veto of a law to protect glaciers in mining areas.
But with the economy rebounding strongly this year, Fernandez's approval ratings have regained some lost ground. And Kirchner's possible presidential bid is backed by around one-third of Argentines, according to recent polls.
Political analyst Graciela Romer said the gay marriage campaign serves to distract from high inflation, which private economists estimate at between 20 percent and 25 percent annually and which is a growing concern among voters.
"In general, at times when there are important economic issues that could hurt the government's image, they tend to launch these kinds of polemical proposals," Romer said.
"This puts the opposition in a delicate situation because many of them have voted in favor of this," she added.
The lower house of Congress quickly passed the gay marriage bill in May, but a Senate committee this week rejected the measure, which should go to a vote next Wednesday.
Bacman said a potential electoral alliance between the Socialists, the Civic Coalition and the traditional Radical party could be hurt by divisions over this issue.
Alcira Argumedo, a lawmaker representing the left-leaning Proyecto Sur movement, said the gay marriage debate had to be understood "in the context of the government's weakness after the June 2009 electoral defeat."
"They pay very close attention to opinion polls, and when they saw a significant proportion of the population supported this, that's when they moved to back it," she said.