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Argentine opposition deals blow to ruling Peronists in midterm vote

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People queue outside a polling station before casting their vote during primary legislative elections, in Buenos Aires, Argentina September 12, 2021. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

BUENOS AIRES, Sept 12 (Reuters) - Argentina's main opposition party landed a blow against the ruling Peronists on Sunday, winning key races in a congressional primary vote that is a strong leading indicator of how voters will cast ballots in the midterm election in November.

The conservative opposition led by around 5 percentage points in the key province of Buenos Aires, with some 84% of votes tallied in the populous region that has been a bastion of support from the center-left government of Alberto Fernandez.

Other results in the mandatory vote showed the ruling party falling back, which if repeated in the Nov. 14 election could see the government lose its majority in the Senate and risk its largest minority position in the lower Chamber of Deputies.

"The ruling party lost 1.2 million votes compared to the 2019 (presidential election); this brings them to a level that, if repeated in November, leaves Alberto Fernandez very weakened," said Mariel Fornoni, director of consultancy Management & Fit.

With most candidates already set, the open primary vote acts as a nationwide dress rehearsal ahead of the Nov. 14 midterm ballot, where 127 seats in the Chamber of Deputies are up for grabs out of a total of 257, as well as 24 seats out of 72 in the Senate.

Many voters feel let down by the main political parties. A lengthy recession, rampant inflation and a poverty rate that has risen to 42% have hurt public support for the government, despite recent signs of an economic recovery and falling coronavirus cases.

"There is great discontent among people," Patricia Coscarello, a 52-year-old administrative worker outside Buenos Aires, said after she voted. "Apart from the pandemic, the economic situation is complex and salaries are shrinking."

VACCINE ROLLOUT

Fernandez can point to a vaccine rollout that has now reached more than 46 million inoculations for a population of a similar size, falling daily COVID-19 cases and the economy's emergence from recession earlier this year after a plunge in 2020.

"Obviously some things we haven't done well because the people haven't accompanied us as we would have hoped," President Fernandez said after the results alongside his party leadership, adding the party would learn from its mistakes and get stronger.

"The campaign has just started and in November we have to win it because we have a commitment to Argentina."

Griselda Picone, 60, a housewife in the capital, said she voted for the ruling party despite some concerns.

"While there are many things to improve, the alternative that governed before (Together for Change) made everything worse," she said. "It seems to me that the handling of the economy during the pandemic has actually been good."

The country's skittish financial markets, which collapsed after a presidential primary in 2019 showed Fernandez winning that year's election by a landslide, could rise if Sunday's vote goes against the ruling party. read more

The logic is that a stronger opposition would temper the Peronists' more militant wings. They have at times clashed with investors, the powerful farm sector and the International Monetary Fund, which is negotiating a debt deal with the government.

Ana Pertusati, a 36-year-old lawyer, and others were pessimistic about prospects for improvement.

"When you ask around, most people don't even know the main candidates," she said while waiting in line to vote. "It seems that whoever wins, it could be of little use to making real positive changes for the people."

Reporting by Nicolas Misculin and Jorge Otaola; Additional reporting by Agustin Geist, Eliana Raszewski, Lucila Sigal; Editing by Adam Jourdan, Peter Cooney and Richard Pullin

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