In surprise, opposition in Argentine election forces runoff

BUENOS AIRES: The ruling party's presidential candidate promised continuity with some changes. The leading opposition candidate promised changes with some continuity.

Argentine voters seemed to call that a draw in Sunday's election, giving the two men a neck-and-neck finish and forcing a runoff in their bid to succeed President Cristina Fernandez, a polarizing leader who garnered both devotion and loathing as she spent heavily on the poor and blasted political opponents and even other nations like the United States.

With 97 percent of polling places reporting Monday, ruling party candidate Daniel Scioli had 36.9 percent of the vote and opposition candidate Mauricio Macri had 34.3. Sergio Massa, a former Fernandez loyalist who broke away to form his own political movement, was third in the six-candidate field with 21.3.

The unexpected tight finish means Macri and Scioli will square off in a Nov. 22 runoff. To win the first round, a candidate had needed 45 percent of the votes or 40 percent and a 10-point advantage over the nearest competitor.

Scioli, the governor of the Buenos Aires province, had been viewed as an easy front-runner thanks to the support of Fernandez, who won admirers for rewriting Argentina's social contract but also drew sharp criticism for widespread allegations of corruption and numerous economic ills, like high inflation.

Numerous polls had predicted Scioli would win by more than 10 points, indicating the only question was whether he could gain enough votes to avoid a runoff.

The strong showing by Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires, underscored that many voters are ready for change after 12 years of Kirchnerismo, the political movement founded by Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor as president, Nestor Kirchner.

"What happened today changes the politics of this country," Macri told supporters late Sunday.

Scioli, the governor of the Buenos Aires province and a former vice president, presented himself as the continuation of Fernandez's policies but who would also fix anything broken.

"I invite undecided and independent (voters) to join me in this great celebration of Argentine development," Scioli told a gathering of supporters late Sunday.

Macri campaign as the candidate to put Argentina's economy in order, promising to resolve a long-running fight with US creditors and lift unpopular currency restrictions.

But he also tailored his campaign to the millions who receive some form of government support. He promised to maintain popular programs for the poor and increase spending in some areas. He even inaugurated a statue of Juan Peron, a three-time former president who founded the ideological movement to which Fernandez adheres.

"Macri can inaugurate whatever he wants," said Claudio Toledo, a Scioli voter. "I don't trust Macri."

While Macri's moves raised eyebrows and drew sharp criticism from Scioli, they likely helped Macri capture undecided voters. But both candidates' decision to straddle the center also led to many questions about what they would really do in office.

Many Argentines are worried about high government spending and inflation around 30 percent as well as being concerned about the legal fight with creditors in the US that has kept the country out of international credit markets.

Still Argentines have a nightmarish reference point for a truly bad economy: the financial collapse of 2001-2002, when the country defaulted on $100 billion in debt and overnight millions of middle class people were impoverished. And Fernandez and her late husband are widely credited with lifting Argentina up from that crisis.

Fernandez sharply increased spending on social welfare programs, which range from work training to stipends for single mothers. Her government was the first in Latin America to legalize gay marriage, and it nationalised airline Aerolineas Argentinas and the YPF oil company while strengthening ties with Russia and China.

Scioli, a former boat racer who lost his right arm in an accident in 1989, bristled at suggestions that Fernandez would continue to dominate behind the scenes.

"What Scioli would do in office is a mystery," said Maria Fernandez, who owns a real estate company. "Will he take orders from Cristina or do something else?"

"I don't want to find out," added Fernandez, who voted for Macri.