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Argentines start voting in litmus test for Peronists

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By Reuters
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By Nicolás Misculin and Jorge Otaola

BUENOSAIRES -Argentines lined up to vote on Sunday in midterm primaries that represent a litmus test for the center-left Peronist government of President Alberto Fernandez as the COVID-19 pandemic and rising poverty have weakened its popularity.

Voting stations around the South American nation opened at 8 a.m. (1100 GMT) and will close at 6 p.m., with exit polls before official results start to come around 11 p.m. Pollsters expect the ruling party to suffer some losses.

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.

“The balance of power could be redefined,” said Shila Vilker, director of pollster Trespuntozero, adding that the main conservative opposition party Together for Change was knocking at the door. “The president needs to put on a good show.”

Pre-election polls show a threat to the ruling party’s majority in the Senate and 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.

Many voters feel let down by the main political parties. A lengthy recession, rampant inflation and a poverty rate that has risen to 42% have hurt public support for the government, despite recent signs of an economic recovery and falling coronavirus cases.

“There is great discontent among people,” Patricia Coscarello, a 52-year-old administrative worker outside Buenos Aires, said after she voted. “Apart from the pandemic, the economic situation is complex and salaries are shrinking.”

VACCINEROLL-OUT

President Fernandez can point to a vaccine roll-out that has now reached more than 46 million jabs for a population of a similar size, falling daily COVID-19 cases and the economy’s emergence from recession earlier this year after a sharp plunge in 2020.

“While there are many things to improve, the alternative that governed before (Together for Change) made everything worse,” Griselda Picone, 60, a housewife in the capital, said. She was voting for the ruling party despite concerns.

“It seems to me that the handling of the economy during the pandemic has actually been good.”

The country’s skittish financial 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.

The logic is that a stronger opposition would temper the Peronists’ more militant wings. They have at times clashed with investors, the powerful farm sector and the International Monetary Fund, which is negotiating a debt deal with the government.

Ana Pertusati, a 36-year-old lawyer, and others were pessimistic about prospects for improvement.

“When you ask around, most people don’t even know the main candidates,” she said while waiting in line to vote. “It seems that whoever wins, it could be of little use to making real positive changes for the people.”