Argentines head to polls in litmus test for Peronists

In this file photo, Argentina's President Alberto Fernandez gestures next to Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (out of frame) during a joint press conference outside the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires on June 9, 2021. (JUAN MABROMATA / AFP)

BUENOS AIRES – Argentines head to the polls on Sunday for midterm primaries in a litmus test for the center-left Peronist government of Alberto Fernandez, which has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic crises and rising poverty.

Voting stations around the South American nation will open at 8 am (1100 GMT) and close some 10 hours later, with exit polls before official result start to come around 11 pm. Pollsters expect the ruling party to suffer some losses.

Pre-election polls show the ruling party falling back, which could threaten its majority in the Senate as well as its hold over the largest bloc in the lower house, where it has a slim lead of some five seats over the main opposition party

With most candidates already set, the vote is in effect a huge straw poll ahead of the Nov 14 midterm ballot, where 127 seats in the lower Chamber of Deputies are up for grabs out of a total of 257, as well as 24 seats out of 72 in the Senate.

Pre-election polls show the ruling party falling back, which could threaten its majority in the Senate as well as its hold over the largest bloc in the lower house, where it has a slim lead of some five seats over the main opposition party.

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While many voters feel let down by both main parties, a lengthy recession, rampant inflation and poverty levels rising to 42 percent have hit the government hard, despite recent signs of an economic recovery and falling coronavirus cases.

"I am going to vote for the opposition, even though I'm not totally convinced," said Jorge Prinz, a 54-year-old architect in Buenos Aires.

"I believe that what Peronism offers has led us since the 1970s to this stage where we're going backwards economically and culturally."

Fernandez will point to a vaccine roll-out that has now reached over 46 million jabs for a population of a similar size, falling daily COVID cases and the emergence from recession earlier this year after a sharp plunge in 2020.

"The president needs to put on a good show," Shila Vilker, director of pollster Trespuntozero told Reuters, adding the main conservative opposition party Together for Change was knocking at the door.

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"The balance of power could be redefined."

The country's skittish markets, which collapsed after a presidential primary in 2019 showed Fernandez winning that year's election by a landslide, could rise if Sunday's vote goes against the ruling party. read more

The logic is that a stronger opposition would temper more militant wings of the Peronists, who have at times clashed with investors, the powerful farm sector, and the International Monetary Fund with whom the government is brokering a new deal.

Griselda Picone, a 60-year-old housewife in the capital, told Reuters she would vote for the ruling party despite some concerns.

"While there are many things to improve, the alternative that governed before (Together for Change) made everything worse," she said. "It seems to me that the handling of the economy during the pandemic has actually been good."