Argentina’s Fernandez leads key province ahead of mid-term vote

Former Argentine President Fernandez de Kirchner waves during a rally in Buenos Aires

By Hugh Bronstein

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Former Argentine President Cristina Fernandez enjoys a wide lead in her October Senate election bid against an opponent backed the country’s current leader and Fernandez’s long-time political nemesis Mauricio Macri, a poll published on Friday showed.

Fernandez, who ran up deficits but was popular with the poor for generous welfare spending during her eight years in power, got 35.6 percent voter intention in the survey of Buenos Aires province by local pollster Ricardo Rouvier & Associates.

Her nearest rival, Esteban Bullrich, Macri’s former education minister, trailed by 9 percentage points. The race will pit Fernandez’s brand of free-spending populism against Macri’s belief that open markets and tight fiscal policy are the way to prosperity for the grains-rich but economically ailing country.

Buenos Aires is home to about 40 percent of Argentine voters. No matter who wins the Senate seat, neither Fernandez’s nor Macri’s coalitions can gain control of Congress in the October mid-term elections.

But if Macri’s Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition gets more votes than Fernandez’s Unidad Ciudadana (Citizens’ Unity) party in population centers like Buenos Aires, Argentine asset prices would be expected to rise.

“A strong showing by Cambiemos would be decoded by investors as a sign that Macri can keep cobbling together the votes needed to get his market-friendly reforms through Congress in the second half of his term, and prepare the ground for a strong re-election bid in 2019,” said Ignacio Labaqui, who analyzes Argentina for New York-based consultancy Medley Global Advisors.

The possibility of a political comeback by Fernandez, who implemented heavy trade and currency controls while in office, has been cited by local economists as one of the reasons for a recent weakening of the local peso.

Fernandez led Argentina from 2007 to 2015. Since then she has kept up a war of words against Macri, who upon taking office in December 2015 promptly ditched the economic controls that scared off investment during the Fernandez years.

While welcomed by the markets, Macri’s more austere policies, such as cutting energy, transportation and education subsidies, have not gone down well with low-income families.

The Rouvier poll was taken June 27 to June 30 among 1,600 Buenos Aires voters. It had a 2.4 percent margin of error.

(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Bill Trott)