Argentina starts its closely watched political primaries

Argentines voted Sunday in party primaries that are seen as a litmus test for general elections in October with pundits closely monitoring support shown for President Mauricio Macri and a ticket involving former President Cristina Fernández.

Political parties hold their primaries simultaneously and voting is obligatory in Argentina, making them effectively an early poll ahead of the Oct. 27 presidential election involving the entire electorate.

The front-runners are Macri and the presidential team of Alberto Fernández and his vice presidential running mate, Cristina Fernández. They are not related. Alberto Fernández was the former president’s chief of staff during her initial term from 2007-2011, and though she surprised many by announcing that she would be his vice presidential candidate – and not the other way around – many people still see voting for their ticket as voting for Cristina Fernández.

The pro-business Macri has the support of financial markets and Washington, but has lost popularity amid discontent over austerity measures, low growth and high inflation. He says he is taking the necessary, painful steps to get the economy going after 12 years of center-left populism under Fernández and her predecessor and late husband Nestor Kirchner.

Cristina Fernández says Macri must be defeated so they can fight the poverty and rising homelessness she blames on his policies. She faces a series of trials for corruption during her 2007-2015 administration, allegations she denies.

In a campaign event, Macri said the choice will determine whether the country “continues moving forward or returns to the past.”

Cristina Fernández counters that Argentines need to leave behind their current “ugly” reality. “I never thought I’d see entire families living on the street again,” she said.

Luis Tonelli, a political science professor at the University of Buenos Aires, said he hasn’t seen an electoral process “this close and with this much uncertainty” since Argentina’s seven-year military dictatorship ended in 1983. He described it as “a tossed coin hanging in the air.”

To be elected president in Argentina in the first round of voting, candidates need to finish first with at least 45% of the votes or have 40% and a greater-than-10-percentage point advantage over the nearest rival. If no candidate wins outright in October, there would be a November runoff.

Polls have shown a rise in Macri’s approval rating in recent months, but not yet enough to top the Fernández ticket.

Former Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna trails far behind the two, but he could play a role in tipping the balloting one way or the other in a November runoff vote.

Six other presidential formulas are registered in Sunday’s elections, with 33.8 million people are entitled to vote. Parties that get less than 1.5% of the overall votes cast in the primary won’t appear on the October ballot.

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