BUENOS AIRES—Argentina could take another sharp political turn in Oct. 27’s presidential elections, with center-left Peronist candidate Alberto Fernández favored to oust conservative incumbent Mauricio Macri amid growing frustration over the country’s economic crisis.
Macri was elected president in 2015 as Argentines rejected a successor chosen by former President Cristina Fernández, who’s now running as vice president on the Peronist ticket with Alberto Fernández. The two aren’t related.
A victory by the Fernández ticket would mark another political swing in South America, which has seen conservative governments elected in Brazil, Colombia, and Chile in recent years. Cristina Fernández was considered part of the “pink tide” of leftist governments that arose in the region in the 1990s and 2000s.
Now, the region is being rocked by unrest in Chile, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador fueled by discontent over corruption, inequality, and slowing growth.
Poverty under Macri has soared, the value of the local currency has sharply depreciated and the inflation rate remains among the highest in the world.
“We Argentines deserve a better country, with work, where we can live peacefully, above all,” said Antonella Bruna, 32, as she voted at the medical school of the National University of Rosario, about 180 miles northwest of Buenos Aires.
Macri retains wide support among the key farming sector in one of the world’s top suppliers of grains. But overall frustration over the economy has eroded the popularity of the pro-business former mayor of Buenos Aires. It has also propelled the candidacy of Alberto Fernández, whose surge has sent jitters in the financial markets over a possible return to interventionist policies of Cristina Fernández’s 2007-2015 administration.
Macri’s camp has tried to capitalize on that unease, portraying her as a puppet master waiting in the wings. But the presidential candidate has dismissed those fears and voters gave him a decisive victory over Macri in August primaries, which are a barometer of support for candidates ahead of the presidential election.
“I don’t see a conflict there,” Alberto Fernández said recently in an interview with The Associated Press. “Argentina’s problem is not Cristina. It’s what Macri has left behind.”
Fernández served as chief of staff from 2003 to 2007 for Cristina Fernández’s predecessor and late husband, Néstor Kirchner. He remained in the position during part of her term as president, but left after a conflict with farmers in 2008.
Peronism is a broad but splintered political movement in the South American country of 44 million people.
On the election trail, Fernández has criticized Macri’s decision to seek a record $56 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund, a deeply unpopular institution in Argentina that is blamed for creating the conditions that led to the country’s worst economic meltdown in 2001.
Macri is credited with returning Argentina to international global markets following a break after the 2001 crisis and with helping strike a free trade deal between South America’s Mercosur bloc and the European Union amid global trade tensions and rising protectionism. But he failed to deliver on promises to jumpstart the economy of the recession-hit country.
On the campaign trail, Macri has pleaded for more time to reverse fortunes and reminds voters of the corruption cases facing Cristina Fernández, who has denied any wrongdoing and remains a powerful if divisive figure in Argentina.
“It’s important so we don’t go back to the time of the Kirchners, when there was so much robbery, so much embezzlement. That wouldn’t be good for the country,” said Bernarda Nidia Guichandut, who helped her elderly parents into a car to go to vote. “Macri is honest. He’s made mistakes, he’s backtracked, but he’s said: “Fine, I was wrong.'”
For the most part, the election atmosphere was calm and turnout large, though the Buenos Aires Province police department said more than 1,000 people were evacuated following 11 reports of bomb threats to schools that were being used as polling stations. No explosives were found.
To avoid a runoff on Nov. 24, a candidate needs to win 45 percent of the vote, or 40 percent support with a 10 percentage point lead over the nearest rival. Nearly all recent surveys give Fernández more than 50 percent support, which would guarantee his outright victory in a first round.
Nearly 34 million Argentines are eligible to vote in Oct. 27’s election. Argentines will also pick 130 lower house seats and 24 senators in Congress, as well as regional mayors, governors for three provinces, and the head of government for the Argentine capital.
By Almudena Calatrava & Luis Andres Henao