BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentines voted Sunday in nationwide congressional elections that marked the beginning of the end of a government led by Cristina Fernandez and her late husband Nestor Kirchner since 2003.
And after a decade of increasing presidential power, the new Congress could be in a position to reassert itself during the final two years of her second term.
Fernandez remains Argentina's most popular politician nationwide, and has kept rivals in check by having allies float the idea of a "re-re-election" to a third term. But Sunday's vote was expected to bury that idea by denying her the two-thirds super-majorities needed in both houses of congress to change the constitution.
Some pre-election polling suggested that the ruling Front for Victory, known as the FPV, and its allies will barely hold onto their majority in the lower house and are more likely to lose the Senate. Fernandez needs a majority in each house to reach a quorum and push through her agenda, and the ruling party has already lost some sure votes in the current Congress. With half of the lower house and a third of the Senate up for grabs, she could lose more.
Of 257 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the FPV has 115 official seats, but can depend on only 109 or 110 votes from its own members, which together with allies provides her with the total she needs. In the current Senate, the FPV has 32 seats, and can count on allies for a total of 38 votes, barely more than the 37 needed for a majority in the 72-member chamber.
As a lame-duck president with no clear successor, Fernandez will have to find new ways of dominating opponents and even maintaining the loyalty of politicians within the ruling Front for Victory, the center-leftist branch of Argentina's multifaceted and fractious Peronist party.
Some 30 million of Argentina's 40 million people were registered to vote in the mandatory election, facing minor fines if they don't cast ballots. But they'll likely have to wait for weeks or months, until the new Congress is seated and their loyalty is tested, to know whether President Fernandez will be forced to abandon her steam-rolling, "we're going for more" leadership style.
Argentina doesn't use unified ballots; voters instead choose between glossy fliers of slates of candidates printed by each political movement, and until the final results are published, it won't be clear how many of each slate's candidates will get seated. Cutting and combining ballots to choose candidates from multiple parties and movements is possible, but rare.
In the all-important Buenos Aires province, the ruling Front for Victory's slate was led by congressional candidate Martin Insurraulde, a little-known mayor of a minor municipality. Before she was diagnosed with a head injury on Oct. 6, Fernandez appeared with him at every major campaign event, sometimes doing all the talking.
Since her surgery, Fernandez has been secluded inside the presidential residence. She was unable to vote or visit Kirchner's tomb on Sunday, also the third anniversary of his sudden death from a heart attack.
A rival congressional slate is led by Sergio Massa, mayor of the wealthy Tigre municipality and former Fernandez cabinet chief. He broke from the FPV and has been drawing former government supporters to his centrist movement, the Front for Renewal, presented as an effort to restore harmony to the politically polarized country.
Traditional opponents also made a strong showing in this year's primary elections. If they can set aside their differences and work with Massa's movement, they could move to limit presidential powers.
But Fernandez has lost ground before, only to recover her strength. After the last mid-term election, and following Kirchner's death, many predicted she wouldn't survive politically without him.
Instead, she consolidated her power, winning back enough allies to extend an economic emergency law enabling her to unilaterally make major financial decisions. Fearful of losing that power after Sunday's vote, the government and its allies in the current Congress recently extended the "emergency" until the end of 2015.