By Hugh Bronstein and Nicolás Misculin
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) -Argentine voters stung the ruling Peronist party in midterm elections on Sunday, initial results showed, with the centre-left party of President Albert Fernandez on track to lose its majority in the Senate held for almost 40 years.
With over 80% of national votes tallied, the Juntos conservative opposition was ahead in most key races, including an important lower-house battle in the populous province of Buenos Aires, normally a stronghold for the Peronists.
In key swing Senate races, Juntos also held strong leads with the majority of votes counted, which would see it erase the ruling party’s majority and hobble Fernandez’s ability to push through legislation without opposition support.
The vote sees half the seats in the lower Chamber of Deputies up for grabs and a third in the Senate, with voters focused on rampant inflation running above 50% 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% since 2016, he said, and he sees little reason for optimism.
“We’re looking at a very tough two years ahead.”
Voting went smoothly under sunny skies in the Southern Hemisphere spring, but many voters were angry or downcast.
“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.”
President Fernandez is facing a trial by fire https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/argentinas-fernandez-faces-political-acid-test-midterm-vote-2021-11-12 in the vote, after his popularity was hit due to COVID-19 lockdowns, spiraling inflation and a currency that is hitting record lows against the U.S. dollar despite strict capital controls.
Ignacio Labaqui, Argentina analyst at New York-based consultancy Medley Global Advisors, said a big 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.”
The governing coalition holds 41 of the 72 seats in the Senate and makes up the largest bloc in the lower house. It risks losing its Senate majority and could be pegged back in the lower chamber.
Focus has been on lower-house results in densely populated Buenos Aires province, while key Senate races https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/argentinas-hinterland-where-cows-outnumber-people-could-tip-balance-congress-2021-11-11 are in provinces such as La Pampa, Chubut and Santa Fe. The opposition is well ahead in all those races.
There are 127 seats in the Chamber of Deputies in play out of a total 257, and 24 Senate seats in eight provinces at stake.
A major defeat weakens Fernandez as pressure builds to strike a new deal with the International Monetary Fund to roll over $45 billion in debt payments the grains-producing country cannot make. It could spark a cabinet reshuffle as the primary defeat did and split the government between moderates and radicals.
Fernandez, after casting his vote, vowed 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 2001/02 economic meltdown, 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.
(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein and Nicolas Misculin; Additional reporting by Agustín Geist and Jorge Otaola; Editing by Adam Jourdan, Raissa Kasolowsky, Andrea Ricci, Daniel Wallis and Diane Craft)