Argentina election: 'Two country' poll highlights divisions

Supporters standing over a sign that reads "Peronismo" appear sad Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Dejected: Supporters of Mr Scioli who had gathered at his party's headquarters were shocked by the result

Only the most ardent, committed and perhaps blinkered of governing Peronist party supporters could interpret Sunday night's elections in Argentina as a victory.

Yet for several hours, that is what pro-government media outlets and even the current president's handpicked successor, Daniel Scioli, were doing.

"Scioli wins," read the rolling red electronic strap on the television screens in the packed media annex at the Front for Victory movement's headquarters in Buenos Aires.

Four hours after the polling stations had closed, Mr Scioli took to the stage, thanked his loyal supporters and set out his programme for government. Only indirectly and very subtly did he refer to the possibility that he might not have secured a clear first-round win and there might be the need for a run-off vote.

Two hours later, Mr Scioli had failed to return to the stage - as party officials had promised he would. With no exit polls or official results, there were whispers and rumours that things might be "going south" for the government.

The results, when they finally came, had everyone in shock.

Mr Scioli and his centre-right opponent, Mauricio Macri, were neck and neck.

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Image caption Disappointment in Mr Scioli's camp was matched only by the surprised excitement at Mr Macri's headquarters

The powerful Peronist party machine that dominates Argentine politics from the smallest provinces to the presidential Casa Rosada (Pink Palace) had been humbled.

The party faithful, who at the start of the evening had been in typically boisterous mood, were rolling up their huge banners and trudging out of the hall. Some were even in tears, fearful that this was the end of their progressive utopian dream.

Yes, they knew that their beloved Cristina - as the sitting President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is popularly known - had to stand down after eight years in power.

But through her chosen successor, Mr Scioli, the project of popular but expensive welfare programmes and interventionist politics that define the "Kirchnerist" government would surely continue.

The future course for Argentina looks much more uncertain today.

Not only did the ruling party fail to dominate the presidential vote, they also lost their congressional majority and - arguably as hurtful as anything else - the polemical government minister Anibal Fernandez, one of President Fernandez de Kirchner's top allies, failed in his bid to become governor of Argentina's most important province, Buenos Aires.

Divisions within the Peronist party are already being laid bare.

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Image caption Mr Scioli has enjoyed only lukewarm support from the party's loyalists

Some of those close to President Fernandez de Kirchner, the ultra loyal Campora movement, have always been lukewarm about Mr Scioli's ability to step into her shoes. They were suspicious, in particular, about his commitment to continue her radical but divisive style of government.

Others within the wider party argue it was that combative but divisive style of politics, personified by President Fernandez de Kirchner, that led to the meltdown.

As one newspaper headline succinctly but correctly put in the morning after the night before: "Two countries."

As the banners were falling to the floor at the governing party rally, across town at Mr Macri's Cambiemos (Let's Change) headquarters they were blowing up balloons, dancing on stage and promising a bright, very different Argentina.

Politicians are, of course, full of promises and some of the slogans in this election have been particularly bland and uninspiring, but Mr Macri and his movement have tapped into a deep dissatisfaction that opinion polls and overconfident government ministers missed or ignored.

Mr Macri, the former mayor of Buenos Aires, appealed for independent and undecided voters to back him in November's second round, saying that Argentina had clearly voted for change.

He will be painted, in these interceding weeks, as a charlatan who wants to slash government spending and abandon the expensive welfare programmes that are so popular with many of Argentina's Peronist-supporting working classes.

But he also recognises that the country is in desperate need of reform.

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Image caption Argentina's economic policy, wracked by massive inflation, is in desperate need of reform

Inflation is running at worryingly high levels, the Central Bank coffers are almost empty and relations with the important agricultural sector are at an all time low.

Mr Scioli may indeed recover to become the next president of Argentina, with the help of the party machine and the votes of those who supported the independent Peronist candidate Sergio Massa in the first round.

But this is a changed country.

Whoever occupies the Casa Rosada in December, when President Fernandez de Kirchner returns to her Patagonian ranch, will need to be a bridge builder - one who can mend fences between conflicting sectors of Argentine society as well as rebuilding the country's reputation overseas.