Voters in Argentina have dealt a severe blow to the ruling Peronist party in midterm elections, according to preliminary results, with the centre-left party of President Albert Fernandez on track to lose its majority in Congress after almost 40 years.
With most of national votes tallied on Sunday, the conservative opposition Juntos held strong leads in key swing Senate races – a development that would see it erase the ruling party’s majority and hobble Fernandez’s ability to push through legislation without opposition support.
Juntos was also ahead in races for lower-house seats, including an important battle in the populous province of Buenos Aires, usually a stronghold for the Peronists.
The results are seen as a “punishment” vote against the Fernandez government amid spiraling inflation and growing poverty.
Al Jazeera’s Teresa Bo said the ruling party’s loss of the Congress “is something that’s historic, it’s the first time that something like this is happening since Argentina turned into a democracy back in the 1980s.
“For Alberto Fernandez, it’s a very tense situation. He has two years left and those two years are going to be extremely difficult,” she added.
In a late night address to the nation, Fernandez went on the defensive, reaching across the aisle and calling for “patriotic” cooperation from the opposition.
Taking a moderate tone, the president vowed to resolve the country’s debt with the International Monetary Fund, tackle the “evil” of inflation and send a long-term economic plan to Congress in early December, something investors and the IMF have sought amid negotiations over a new deal with the Fund.
“In this new stage, we will deepen our efforts to reach a sustainable agreement with the IMF. We must clear the uncertainties that come with this sort of unsustainable debt,” Fernandez said.
‘Tough two years ahead’
Roughly 34 million Argentines were eligible to vote in Sunday’s election, which was held to select 127 national seats throughout the country, representing half the seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and 24 national senators in eight provinces, equivalent to a third of the Senate.
Voting went smoothly under sunny skies in the Southern Hemisphere spring, but many voters were angry or downcast amid rampant inflation running above 50 percent and high poverty levels sharpened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I know very few people who make enough money to get to the end of the month,” said Ricardo Arese, 69, a security guard in the capital Buenos Aires. His household expenses have risen 300 percent since 2016, he said, and he sees little reason for optimism.
“We’re looking at a very tough two years ahead.”
“I’m here to vote with the hope that everything will change. We are tired,” said Mirta Laria, 62, a housewife in Buenos Aires. “Every day we are a bit worse off and the sad thing is that our children only see a way out for their life abroad.”
Fernandez’s popularity has been hit due to COVID-19 lockdowns, spiralling inflation and a currency that is hitting record lows against the US dollar despite strict capital controls. The government has tried to boost support, announcing last month a deal with the private sector to freeze prices on more than 1,500 basic goods, as well as increasing the minimum wage and family allowances.
Ignacio Labaqui, Argentina analyst at New York-based consultancy Medley Global Advisors, said a significant loss would mean Fernandez would be left with “little political power, as a part of coalition full of internal grievances and with a pile of economic problems to fix, starting with inflation”.
After casting his vote, Fernandez promised to fight on regardless of the result, despite experts saying he would face a power struggle with the more radical wing of his party allied to influential Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
“Tonight we will hear what the people have said. Tomorrow … Argentina continues, with all the strength to keep governing and doing what we have to do so that the country is well,” he said.
Since the country’s economic meltdown in the early 2000s, which threw millions of middle-class Argentines into poverty, many families have come to rely on social spending by Peronist governments.
One voter said she was sticking with the ruling party as she felt part of the “Peronist family”.
Another voter, Graciela Pacri, a 47-year-old housewife with four children, said state support was vital to surviving amid hard economic times.
“If it weren’t for a subsidy I have, I don’t know how I would live since it is difficult to find work,” she said.