Argentines voted on Sunday in midterm elections that will establish the power balance in Congress, with the ruling Peronist party battling to avoid damaging losses that could erase its majority in the Senate held for almost 40 years.
The vote sees half the seats in the lower Chamber of Deputies up for grabs and a third in the Senate, with voters focused on rampant inflation running above 50% and high poverty levels arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Peronist coalition of left-leaning President Alberto Fernandez faces a trial by fire as it looks to reverse a crushing defeat in a September primary ballot, that if repeated could hobble the ruling party in the next two years.
"Fernandez would have to conduct the second half of his term with little political power, as a part of coalition full of internal grievances and with a pile of economic problems to fix, starting with inflation," said Ignacio Labaqui, Argentina analyst at New York-based consultancy Medley Global Advisors.
Most pollsters expect a damaging defeat for the government whose popularity has suffered due to COVID-19 lockdowns, spiraling inflation and a currency that is hitting record lows against the U.S. dollar despite strict capital controls.
Vaulting consumer prices are a problem that Argentina has wrestled with off and on for decades.
"We are having a hard time due to inflation. It is a karma that we Argentines have and there is no government that can solve it," said 62-year-old voter Raul Coronel, a freelance worker. "Today I changed my vote, for the Libertarians."
The governing coalition holds 41 of the 72 seats in the Senate and makes up the largest bloc in the lower house. If Sunday goes badly, it risks losing its Senate majority and could be pegged back in the lower chamber.
Focus will be on the lower-house result in densely populated Buenos Aires province, a Peronist stronghold where a defeat for Fernandez's coalition would sting. There are key Senate races in provinces such as La Pampa, Chubut and Santa Fe.
The vote opened at 8 a.m. (1100 GMT) with 127 seats in the Chamber of Deputies in play out of a total 257, and 24 Senate seats in eight provinces at stake. Polling stations will close around 6 p.m. with results starting to come in a few hours later.
Fernandez, in comments to media after voting, vowed to stay the course. "Tomorrow is Monday and Argentina continues, with all the strength to continue governing and doing what we have to do so that the country is well," he said.
A major defeat would weaken Fernandez as pressure builds to strike a new deal with the International Monetary Fund to roll over $45 billion in debt payments the grains-producing country cannot make. It could spark a cabinet reshuffle as the primary defeat did and split the government between moderates and radicals.
Since the country's 2002 economic meltdown, which threw millions of middle-class Argentines into poverty, many families have come to rely on social spending by Peronist governments.
"If it weren't for a subsidy that I have, I don't know how I would live since it is difficult to find work," said voter Graciela Pacri, a 47-year-old housewife with four children.