Argentina’s presidential poll was headed for a run-off vote as early counts Sunday showed the ruling party unexpectedly neck-and-neck with the opposition in the first round.
With 90 per cent of votes counted, ruling-party candidate Daniel Scioli, governor of the powerful Buenos Aires province, was on 36.2 per cent.
Mayor of Buenos Aires city Mauricio Macri, of the opposition coalition Cambiemos, was unexpectedly strong on 34.9 per cent, while Sergio Massa, a former government chief of staff under Fernandez de Kirchner, got 21.2 per cent.
Argentinian electoral law says that to win in the first round, a candidate needs either more than 45 per cent of votes, or more than 40 per cent with a lead of at least 10 percentage points over the closest rival.
Earlier opinion polls put Scioli, 58, a former powerboat pilot who lost his right arm in a racing accident, at close to 40 per cent, and businessman Macri, 56, on around 30 per cent.
The feat of reaching the presidency in just one round appeared almost out of reach for any of the candidates, and Scioli and Macri were expected to face off in a run-off scheduled for November 22.
Scioli, who served as former president Nestor Kirchner’s vice president, was leading in Sunday’s vote, but underperformed overall, including defeat for his party in the Buenos Aires province, traditionally a stronghold of the Peronist, ruling Front for Victory.
Cambiemos’ Maria Eugenia Vidal is to succeed Scioli as governor of a province with 16 million people that had been led by a Peronist since 1987.
“Thank you all for this new victory,” Scioli said ahead of the first official results.
His tone, however, indicated that he expected a run-off, as he called upon independent voters and “those who chose other options” to join his party’s ranks from now on.
Macri stressed that voters had opted for change.
“What happened today changes politics in this country,” Macri said.
“The trust that has been placed on me not only moved me but fills me with responsibility,” he said.
Polling stations closed at 2100 GMT after 10 hours of voting. About 79 per cent of the 32 million registered voters cast their ballots, authorities said. Voting is compulsory in Argentina for adults below the age of 70.
Electoral authorities had warned that they would wait until they had “substantial and homogeneous data” before issuing the first preliminary official results. They took close to six hours​ to issue results based on the count of about 60 per cent of the ballots.
The election marks the end of the Kirchner era. After 12 years of rule by Nestor Kirchner, who died in office in 2007, and his wife, successor and current president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the next president will at the very least have a different name.
After voting at a school in the Palermo neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, Macri, of the centre-right Cambiemos, compared the election to an airline ticket that could lead the country to a new destination. He said the country had the opportunity to decide whether everything would go on as before or whether change would come.
Fernandez de Kirchner remains very popular as she leaves office, but the country’s laws ban her from standing for a third consecutive term.
While voting in Patagonia, she stressed that her government left Argentina a “normal, crisis-free country” as opposed to 2003 when her husband took over the government in the midst of a severe economic crisis. She said she would stay involved in politics, although she would not seek a new public office.
The next president will take office on December 10 and will need to deal with inflation, as well as foreign exchange controls that have led to a thriving black market for dollars and shrinking central bank reserves.
The winner will further need to address defaulted bond holders who have refused to settle with Argentina’s government, after it defaulted on 95 billion dollars of debt in 2001.
While more than 92 per cent of holders of defaulted bonds have accepted partial settlements or discounts, the remainder have sued Argentina in US courts for full reimbursement. The dispute is keeping Argentina out of most international credit markets.