Voters in Argentina will cast ballots Sunday in a general election expected to hand the presidency to center-left Peronist candidate Alberto Fernandez -- and bring to an end the crisis-plagued rule of pro-business leader Mauricio Macri.
Fernandez -- whose running mate is ex-president Cristina Kirchner -- is widely tipped in opinion polls to obtain the 45 percent of votes needed to secure an outright victory in the first round.
‘With Cristina, we're going to put Argentina on its feet... We're sure that we know what to do,’ Fernandez said at his final rally Thursday in Mar del Plata, 400 kilometers (250 miles) south of the capital Buenos Aires.
In August's primaries, Fernandez garnered 49.5 percent of the vote compared to only 33 percent for Macri, whose nearly four years in power have been marked by economic woes.
And polls indicate Fernandez's lead has only grown since then.
Macri's popularity has fallen off sharply over the last year in which Argentina has been in recession.
The poverty rate has risen to more than 35 percent, inflation for the year to September was at almost 38 percent, while the peso has depreciated 70 percent since January 2018.
The peso fell 5.86 percent in the week before the elections, closing Friday at 63.51 to the dollar.
‘I came to buy dollars because when the vote comes, we know that everything is going to go up,’ Cristian Golan, a 23-year-old driver, told AFP at a foreign exchange counter in downtown Buenos Aires.
Others outside the currency counter spoke of rumours of a bank and exchange holiday on Monday and Tuesday after the vote.
‘It's very difficult to buy dollars. There are a couple of places where there are none left and it's full of people,’ said a 29-year-old student named Barbara.
A currency crisis last year forced Macri to turn to the International Monetary Fund to secure a $57 billion bailout loan.
That, and the austerity measures Macri subsequently was forced to announce, proved highly unpopular in a country where the spending power of many ordinary Argentines has dropped dramatically.
Macri blamed Argentina's economic woes on previous Peronist governments under Kirchner (2007-15) and her late husband Nestor (2003-07).
‘We don't want this form of government any more. They've tried to come after our liberty,’ Macri said at his last campaign rally in the central city of Cordoba.
- 'Disaster will arrive' -
It would take a remarkable swing in the polls for Argentina's 34 million registered voters to even give Macri the chance of a second round run-off in November.
But no matter who wins, they will be faced with a divided country.
‘I'm afraid that this rally will be a farewell, that we'll say goodbye and the disaster will arrive,’ Oscar Valle, a 70-year-old engineer, told AFP at Macri's event.
Whatever the president's arguments, Argentina is experiencing its worst economic crisis in nearly two decades.
‘Hope is reborn ... that's what Cristina and Alberto represent,’ said teacher Jose Murad, 44, at Fernandez's rally.
Consultants Capital Economics are skeptical about Fernandez's ability to turn around Argentina's economy.
‘His economic policy stance remains unclear... we think that his tenure would be marked by more accommodative policy, persistently high inflation, further large currency falls and a large debt write-down,’ the consultants said in a statement.
Should Fernandez win, they expect inflation to remain at 40-50 percent and for the peso to fall from its current rate of 63 to 80 to the dollar by the end of next year.
Macri has urged voters to keep faith with the country's current path, promising a better future at the end of the road.
‘Don't let the difficulties make you doubt all the things we've achieved, about how we want to live. Don't let them abandon our dreams,’ Macri said Wednesday at a rally in the capital.
Sunday's election is essentially a two-way battle, with the rest of the candidates, led by former finance minister Roberto Lavagna, not expected to poll more than a combined 15 percent.
Voters will also elect half of the Chamber of Deputies, a third of the Senate, the governor of Buenos Aires province and the capital's mayor.
The election comes at a time of high tension in the region following violent protests and riots in Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia -- the latter following a disputed election result.
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