Argentina's President Mauricio Macri works the crowd during a campaign rally  in Cordoba, Argentina, Aug. 7, 2019.
Argentina's President Mauricio Macri works the crowd during a campaign rally in Cordoba, Argentina, Aug. 7, 2019.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA - Argentines are entering the tightest presidential race since the return of the country's democracy with conservative President Mauricio Macri facing an opposition ticket including ex-President Cristina Fernandez, and primary elections Sunday are expected to provide a hint of who might win October's vote. 

Party primaries are closely watched in Argentina because they are held simultaneously and voting is obligatory, so they are seen as referendum on candidates' popularity — effectively an early poll involving the entire electorate.

This year's primaries will be “a great orchestra rehearsal (for the Oct 27 election) in which we are going to see which instruments will play, which will play loudly and which will be silenced,” said Luis Tonelli, a political science professor at the University of Buenos Aires. 

He said he hasn't seen an electoral process “this close and with this much uncertainty” since a seven-year military dictatorship ended in 1983. He described it as “a tossed coin hanging in the air.”

Markets could go up or down depending on whether the business-friendly Macri or center-left ticket of Alberto Fernandez and Cristina Fernandez poll favorably on Sunday. Alberto Fernandez was the former president's chief of staff during her initial term from 2007-2011, and she surprised many people when she announced that she would be the vice presidential candidate while he runs for president. 

If no candidate wins outright in October, there would be a November runoff.

Alberto Fernandez, right, and Cristina Fernandez, former president and first lady, campaign to be the presidential ticket for the "Frente de Todos" party ahead of primary elections in Rosario, Argentina.

Macri, the son of one of Argentina's most powerful businessmen, assumed the presidency in 2015, promising to revive a moribund economy with free-market policies, greater transparency and an opening to international markets. He said he would improve relations with the United States, which had soured under Fernandez. 

But the South American country is struggling through an economic crisis involving high inflation, a plunging peso currency and 10% unemployment, which has hurt his popularity. Protests erupted after his government reduced subsidies, sharply increasing utility bills.

“Factories are closing every week, both in the provinces and in Buenos Aires,” said Estela Duran, a 73-year-old retiree who hoped Fernandez would return to power, even if only as vice president. 

Some Argentines support Macri's austerity over the populism of the former president, who has been hounded by corruption allegations. She faces a series of trials, including for accusations she collected bribes in exchange for public works projects. She denies the charges.

Ruben Oliveros, 29, thanks Macri for having a job and said he would give him a new opportunity because he is confident the South American country will progress “along this path.”

‘’I feel it's a sacrifice we make to have a better country,” he said, referring to Macri's austerity measures.

Gabriel Tomaselli sits with his dogs in front the church of San Cayetano in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Aug. 7, 2019.

In a campaign event, Macri said the choice will determine whether the country “continues moving forward or returns to the past.”

Fernandez counters that Argentines need to leave behind their current “ugly” reality. “I never thought I'd see entire families living on the street again,” Cristina Fernandez said.

The primaries also could have an economic impact.

A Fernandez victory would hit markets, said Matias Carugati, chief economist at Management & Fit consultancy. “The closer Alberto (Fernandez) is to 45% support, the more nervous investors will be, because that is the percentage that defines” a win in October. 

To be elected president in Argentina in the first round, candidates need to finish first with at least 45% of the votes or have 40% and a greater-than-10-percentage point advantage over the nearest rival. 

A victory by the Peronist Fernandez ticket would entail “pressures on the exchange rate, country risk and stock market,” said Carugati.

Polls have shown a rise in Macri's approval rating in recent months, but not yet enough to top the Fernandez ticket.

Former Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna trails far behind the two, but he could play a role in tipping the balloting one way or the other in a November runoff vote. 

Six other presidential formulas are registered in Sunday's elections, with 33.8 million people entitled to vote. Parties that get less than 1.5% of the overall votes cast in the primary won't appear on the October ballot.

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