BUENOS AIRES: Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli led Argentina’s presidential election race as counting got under way Sunday, but it was unclear whether he would avoid a runoff against his conservative rival.
As Argentines gathered around their TVs to learn who will be their next president after 12 years under Cristina Kirchner and her late husband Nestor, exit polls gave the lead to Scioli — Kirchner’s choice to succeed her — with business favorite Mauricio Macri in second.
Scioli, a 58-year-old powerboating fanatic who lost his right arm in a 1989 racing accident, served as Nestor Kirchner’s vice president from 2003 to 2007.
Macri, the 56-year-old mayor of Buenos Aires, is a former football executive who rose to prominence with a trophy-encrusted reign at Argentina’s most popular club, Boca Juniors.
Five major television broadcasters put Scioli in the lead and Macri in second, but it was unclear whether the former racked up the magic numbers to avoid a second round on November 22.
Under Argentine electoral law, in order to win outright, a candidate must claim more than 45 percent of the vote, or at least 40 percent with a margin of 10 points over the runner-up.
The media released no specific exit poll figures, which is barred under Argentine law.
The final opinion polls before the vote put Scioli at about 40 percent, with Macri at around 30 percent.
Both sides had their own version of events as they awaited the official results.
“There will be a runoff,” said Macri spokesman Marcos Pena.
His rival counterpart Alberto Perez declared a “resounding victory for Scioli.”
The mood was celebratory at both campaigns’ headquarters.
Scioli has vowed to defend the core of “kirchnerism,” a populist movement built around trade protectionism, social welfare and defense of the working class.
But he has also promised a change in style to attract more investment and increase productivity.
Macri for his part has vowed to put an immediate and decisive end to what he calls the Kirchners’ heavy-handed economic policy and belligerent politics.
There may be a spoiler in the form of Sergio Massa, a former Kirchner ally who fell out with the president and launched a rival party, the Renewal Front, two years ago.
Exit polls said he placed third.
Nestor Kirchner came to office in 2003, in the aftermath of a devastating economic crisis that triggered what was then the largest sovereign debt default in history.
He presided over a stunning turnaround underpinned by average economic growth of more than eight percent a year.
He handed power to his wife in 2007. They were widely expected to continue their term-for-term tango, but Nestor died of a heart attack in 2010.
Cristina, a fiery former senator, won re-election in 2011.
As she cast her ballot Sunday, the 62-year-old leader said she was proud to be handing over a “normal” country.
“In the past, we’ve always voted in the middle of crisis,” said Kirchner, who leaves office with an approval rating of around 50 percent after serving the two-term limit.
But the economic magic of the early Kirchner years has faded.
The next president will inherit a country troubled by inflation, an overvalued currency and an economy facing what the International Monetary Fund predicts will be a 0.7 percent contraction next year.
Argentina, Latin America’s third-largest economy, after Brazil and Mexico, is also still waging a messy legal battle with two American hedge funds that reject its plans to restructure the $100 billion in debt it defaulted on in 2001.
The firms, which Kirchner condemns as “vulture funds,” successfully sued for full payment in US federal court. Kirchner’s refusal to pay them pushed Argentina into a new default last year.
Her tenure has also been marked by acrimonious battles with big media, the courts and old Falklands War enemy Britain.
As they cast their ballots, Scioli and Macri both invoked the prowess of Argentina’s national rugby team, which was facing Australia later in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals in Britain.
Scioli praised the Pumas’ “grit” and Macri called them “an example of the Argentina we all want.”
Despite this high-level cheerleading, the Wallabies won 29-15, dashing Argentina’s hopes of reaching the finals.