By ALMUDENA CALATRAVA and LUIS ANDRÉS HENAO, Associated Press
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Conservative President Mauricio Macri conceded defeat in Argentina’s election Sunday night, paving the way for the country’s Peronist center-left to return to power under Alberto Fernández as frustrated voters rejected the incumbent’s handling of a bruising economic crisis that has sunk many into poverty.
The result would mark a dramatic return to high office of former President Cristina Fernández, Alberto Fernández’s vice presidential running mate, former boss and what critics say might be the power behind his throne.
Macri told supports at his headquarters that he had called Fernández to congratulate him and invited him for a breakfast chat Monday at the Pink Presidential Palace.
“We need an orderly transition that will bring tranquility to all Argentines, because the most important thing is the well-being of all Argentines,” Macri said.
Authorities said Fernández has 47.83% of the votes compared to 40.66% for Macri, with 91.21% 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 promising to jumpstart the country’s economy. Argentines rejected at the time a successor chosen by ex-president Fernández, who along with her late husband dominated Argentina’s political scene for 12 years and rewrote its social contract. But the divisive former leader, who embodies Argentina’s enduring cycle of hope and despair, appears back.
Thousands of their supporters crowded outside their campaign headquarters in a jubilant celebration waving sky-blue and white Argentine flags.
“I’m so happy. We were waiting for this change for a long time. We’re tired of everything that has been happening,” said supporter Juan José De Antonio, 46. “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.”
As polls closed Alberto Fernández embraced his girlfriend as friends cheered. He then greeted sympathizers who gathered outside the gate of his apartment chanting: “Alberto presidente!”
Sunday’s largely peaceful election was dominated by concerns over rising poverty, a sharp depreciation of the currency and one of the world’s highest inflation rates. Voters seemed to have rejected austerity measures that Macri insisted were needed to revive Argentina’s struggling economy. Many Argentines have taken to the streets frustrated with cuts to rises in fuel and transportation costs.
If the result stands, it would mark a triumphant comeback for Cristina Fernández and a shift leftward for 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.
“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.
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.
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.