Argentines weigh continuity or overhaul in election

BUENOS AIRES: Argentines will be weighing continuity versus a financial overhaul Sunday as they pick the successor to President Cristina Fernandez, a polarising leader who dominated national politics for 12 years.

Inflation is around 30 percent, the economy is stagnant and a bitter court fight with a group of creditors in the US has scared off investors and kept Argentina on the margins of international credit markets. But the country is stable compared to the financial collapse of 2001-2002, when the country defaulted on $100 billion in debt and overnight millions of middle class people were impoverished. Today, many people don't notice effects of the macroeconomic problems in their daily lives.

Daniel Scioli, the governor of the Buenos Aires province and a former vice president, is the chosen successor to Fernandez, who is the most influential politician in Argentina, with an approval rating of around 50 percent.

Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor as president, Nestor Kirchner, are widely credited with lifting the nation after the collapse. Fernandez sharply increased spending on social welfare programs, which range from work training to stipends for single mothers. Her government also legalised gay marriage, the first in Latin America to do so, nationalized airline Aerolineas Argentinas and the YPF oil company and strengthened ties with Russia and China.

Scioli, a former boat racer who lost his right arm in an accident in the 1990s, has presented himself as the continuation of Fernandez's policies who will also fix anything that is broken. He bristles at suggestions that Fernandez will continue to dominate behind the scenes.

The lead opposition candidate is Mauricio Macri, the Buenos Aires mayor who has presented himself as the candidate to put Argentina's economy in order, promising to make a deal with the US creditors that Fernandez blasts as "vultures" and lift unpopular currency restrictions.

To win, a candidate needs 45 percent of the votes, or 40 percent and at least a 10-point advantage over the nearest competitor.

The race is tight. Scioli is the front-runner, according to a half dozen polls published the last week.

In one poll, by Ricardo Rouvier and Associates, 40 percent of respondents said they would vote for Scioli compared to 29 percent for Macri. An additional 22 percent said they would vote for Sergio Massa, a former Fernandez loyalist who broke ranks to form his own party. The survey interviewed 1,200 people by phone Oct. 2-15 and had a margin of error of three percentage points.