Alberto Fernandez, presidential candidate for Frente de Todos party, casts a ballot during presidential elections in the Puerto Madero suburb of Buenos Aires, Argentina, October 27 2019. Picture: SARAH PABST/BLOOMBERG
Alberto Fernandez, presidential candidate for Frente de Todos party, casts a ballot during presidential elections in the Puerto Madero suburb of Buenos Aires, Argentina, October 27 2019. Picture: SARAH PABST/BLOOMBERG

Buenos Aires — Argentines headed out to the polls on Sunday after a year of twists and turns in a dramatic election race that is likely to oust conservative President Mauricio Macri and shift the South American country back towards the Peronist left.

Around the country, in an overcast Buenos Aires, amid the Pampas farmlands and the vineyards of Mendoza, people lined up outside polling stations, many at schools, to cast their vote before the ballot closed at 21:00 GMT. The first results were expected a few hours later. 

The election pits Macri's tough-love austerity against the "social contract" of the left-leaning opposition, whose populism has lured voters, hurt badly by a snarling economic crisis. Fernandez has a wide lead in pre-election polls.

Argentinian President Mauricio Macri, arrives to vote at a polling station in the Palermo neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina, October 27 2019. Picture: ERICA CANEPA/BLOOMBERG
Argentinian President Mauricio Macri, arrives to vote at a polling station in the Palermo neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina, October 27 2019. Picture: ERICA CANEPA/BLOOMBERG

Argentina's choice could have far-reaching implications: it is one the world's top grain exporters, is stirring the energy world with its huge Vaca Muerta shale field, and is restructuring talks with creditors over $100bn in debt.

It also reflects a shift towards the left around the region, where conservative reformers face the challenge of slowing growth, sparking anger about poverty and inequality.

"What's in play in this election are simply two opposing views of the country," said José Luis Salomón, mayor of farming town Saladillo, who is supporting Macri and holds out hope that he can force a second round.

Not many agree. Fernandez, a relative unknown until this year outside Argentine political circles, holds a 20-point lead in most opinion polls after thumping Macri in an August primary, a shock result that rattled markets as investors feared a populist political shift.

That result — and the sharp market crash that followed — radically altered the dynamic of the race, pushing the country further into economic crisis and making Macri the underdog in an election that most had thought would be a close-run affair.

"We are in an enormous crisis and as a result, we all have to be very responsible for what's coming. It will be an effort from all of us," Fernandez said as he cast his vote in a Buenos Aires polling station.

'Four complex years'

The economy has taken centre stage with the country in the grip of recession for most of 2018, the outlook for growth darkening, annual inflation over 50%, job numbers down and poverty up sharply.

Others, however, said they feared a return of the Peronist left, which they blamed for leaving an already broken economy when Macri come into power in 2015. Many said Macri needed more time to sort things out.

Argentina's former president and current vice-presidential candidate Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner votes at a polling station in Rio Gallegos, Santa Cruz province, during Argentina's general election, October 27 2019. Picture: WALTER DIAZ / AFP
Argentina's former president and current vice-presidential candidate Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner votes at a polling station in Rio Gallegos, Santa Cruz province, during Argentina's general election, October 27 2019. Picture: WALTER DIAZ / AFP

"Even though it's been four complex years, I have hope Macri can fix it," said Pablo Nicolás, 36, an accountant, as he voted on Sunday. He said he did not trust Fernandez's running mate, former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Conservative incumbent Macri won backers with plans to reform Argentina's notoriously closed economy with trade deals and a successful push to lure foreign investment into energy projects and infrastructure.

His reform plans, however, were badly hit in 2018 when a currency and debt crisis forced him to strike a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for an eventual $57bn to help the country to pay its bills.

Macri, casting his votes to cheers of "yes we can", said that he understood the country was going through "anxious" times, but hoped strong turn-out would help his cause.

"There is more participation than before. We have had a record number of voters, which is very positive. There is a lot of interest and we understand that this is a historic election for our country," he said.

Fernández, however, looks set to take over Macri's mantle — as well as ongoing negotiations with creditors, including the IMF, about restructuring more than $100bn in sovereign debt amid fears the country could face a damaging default.

Fernandez won the primary by almost 16 points, a feat which if repeated on Sunday would hand him the presidency outright.

Most investors are already pricing in a Peronist opposition win, though a big victory could lead to renewed volatility in the markets, which have been constrained to a degree by recently imposed capital controls.

Fernández, a former Cabinet chief, is seen as a moderate within the broad Peronist flank whose diplomacy skills have helped unite what was a fractured movement.

The rival candidates need 45% of the vote or 40% with a 10-point lead over the runner-up to avoid a second round, which if needed would be held on November 24.

Voters will choose presidential candidates, along with deputies, senators, governors and local leaders.

Reuters