Argentina Economic Crisis Boosts Center-Left in Election

Incumbent President Mauricio Macri conceded defeat to Alberto Fernández

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Argentina faced a potentially sharp political shift on Sunday with center-left Peronist candidate Alberto Fernández favored to win a presidential election dominated by frustration over an economic crisis that has eroded support for conservative incumbent Mauricio Macri.

Macri conceded defeat to Fernández, congratulating him at his campaign headquarters Sunday night.

The concession came as authorities said Fernández has 47.48% of the votes compared to 41.08% for Macri, with 80.79% percent of the votes counted. He needs 45% support, or 40% support with a 10 percentage point lead, over the nearest rival to avoid a runoff vote on Nov. 24.

Macri was elected president in 2015 as Argentines rejected a successor chosen by former President Cristina Fernández, who governed the South American country from 2007 to 2015 and is now running as vice president on the Peronist ticket with Alberto Fernández.

As soon as the polls closed Alberto Fernández embraced his girlfriend as friends clapped around him. He then greeted sympathizers who gathered outside the gate of his apartment chanting: "Alberto presidente!" Hundreds more are waving sky-blue and white Argentine flags outside his campaign headquarters.

"I'm so happy. We were waiting for this change for a long time. We're tired of everything that has been happening," said Juan Jose De Antonio, 46, as other supporters crowded an outdoor stage where Fernández was expected to appear.

"Some of us live a different reality from those suffering hunger, but when you have a friend who lost a job, a neighbor who can't make ends meet, it hits you."

A victory by the Fernández ticket - the two are not related - 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 (290 kilometers) 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 polices 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, while Argentines continue to lose purchasing power to an inflation rate of more than 55 percent and about a third have been plunged under the poverty line.

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% of the vote, or 40% support with a 10 percentage point lead over the nearest rival. Nearly all recent surveys give Fernández more than 50% support, which would guarantee his outright victory in a first round.

Argentines are also choosing 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.

Associated Press journalists Paul Byrne, Debora Rey and Natacha Pisarenko in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Hernán Alvarez in Rosario, Argentina, contributed to this report.

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