BUENOS AIRES - Argentina's Peronists on Monday celebrated their return to power after conservative incumbent President Mauricio Macri conceded defeat in a dramatic election that swung the country back to the center-left, saw the return of a divisive former president and threatened to rattle financial markets.
As investors nervously eyed Monday's market opening, thousands of jubilant supporters of Alberto Fernandez and his vice presidential running mate, ex-President Cristina Fernandez, waved sky-blue and white Argentine flags and chanted “We're coming back! We're coming back!”
“Today, Alberto is the president of all Argentines,” Cristina Fernandez told supporters, some of whom brandished tattoos with her image and the image of her late husband and predecessor as president, Nestor Kirchner.
Electoral authorities said Alberto Fernandez had 48.1% of the votes compared to 40.4% for Macri, with almost 97% percent of the votes counted. He needed a poll-topping 45% of the vote to avoid a runoff.
The election was dominated by the country's economic woes and rising poverty, with voters rejecting austerity measures that Macri insisted were needed.
“The only thing that concerns us is that Argentines stop suffering once and for all,” Alberto Fernandez told the crowd.
The 60-year-old lawyer said he would need the support of Macri's administration to reconstruct what he called the inherited “ashes” of Argentina.
Earlier in the evening, Macri told disappointed supporters that he had called Alberto Fernandez to congratulate him and invited him for a breakfast chat Monday at the 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.
Some worried that the Peronist victory would scare off investors and bring the return of interventionist policies that would only increase Argentina's economic woes.
Argentina's inflation rate already is one of the highest in the world, nearly one third of Argentines are poor and its currency has plunged under Macri, who came into power in 2015 with promises to boost South America's second-largest economy and one of the world's top grains suppliers.
Stocks plummeted when Fernandez topped party primaries in August and the peso depreciated on investor fears of a return to the populist economic policies of Cristina Fernandez, who governed from 2007 to 2015.
Argentina Central Bank president Guido Sandleris promised Monday to protect the bank's foreign reserves.
Immediately after the results came in, the Central Bank announced it would sharply limit the amount of dollars that people can buy.
“During the final days of last week we observed a significant increase in the demand for dollars, mainly by individuals,” Sandleris said. “In the face of the risk of this phenomenon being maintained this week, we decided to escalate the (currency) controls.”
The bank said dollar purchases will be restricted to $200 a month from bank accounts and $100 cash until December. The previous amount allowed was $10,000 a month.
“The last two years have been brutal in Argentina,” said Benjamin Gedan, an Argentina expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Voters have suffered a painful recession, unimaginably high inflation and a debt crisis. No incumbent could survive in these conditions.”
Gedan said Fernandez is “an untested leader” whose proposed solutions to Argentina's daunting challenges remain a mystery and who inherits a ruinous economy and unfavorable international conditions.
Sunday's result also marks a dramatic return to high office for Cristina Fernandez, no relation to the president-elect.
Alberto Fernandez served as chief of staff from 2003 to 2007 for President Nestor Kirchner, Cristina Fernandez's husband, and remained in the post during part of her term as president.
For many voters, placing the former aide at the top of the ticket made it more palatable. Cristina Fernandez, who represents the more radical wing of the Peronist party, is both wildly popular among many and widely despised. She also faces a string of corruption investigations.
Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank, said she has hard-core support of about 30% of Argentines.
“The crucial question is what the dynamic will be between the pragmatic president and more ideological and polarizing vice president,” Shifter said. “The nature of that power struggle will determine the direction of Argentina's economic, social and foreign policy in coming years.”
Shifter said that despite some fears, a return of the populist policies under Cristina Fernandez is highly unlikely.
“Today Argentina simply does not have the economic conditions for unchecked spending,” he said. “This will not be a replay of her presidency.”
The result comes at a moment when both left and right have been struggling in South America. Market-friendly governments have won recently in Colombia, Brazil and Chile, but all have faced unrest - including last week's massive protests in Chile over inequality and slowing growth.
Macri retained wide support among the key farming sector in one of the world's top suppliers of grains. But overall frustration over the economy eroded the popularity of the pro-business former mayor of Buenos Aires and ex-president of the popular Boca Juniors soccer club.
Argentina faces tough challenges ahead: Commodities exports - the backbone of its economy - are vulnerable globally and it has a huge foreign debt. The World Bank forecasts that Argentina's economy will shrink 3.1% this year. More than a third of the country is poor, unemployment is at 10.6%, and inflation is expected to hit 55% this year.
On the election trail, Fernandez criticized Macri's decision to seek a record $56 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund, an institution many Argentines blame for creating the conditions that led to the country's worst economic meltdown in 2001.
“Argentina will be on even more uncertain ground as negotiations with the IMF could go either way,” said Monica de Bolle, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
On the campaign trail, Macri pleaded for more time to reverse fortunes and reminded voters of the corruption cases facing Cristina Fernandez, who has denied any wrongdoing.
“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.