Argentine primary makes Fernandez lame-duck leader

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner could lose control of Argentina’s Congress during the last two years of her presidency if Sunday’s primary results are repeated in October’s midterm elections. The results also end any hopes of changing constitutional term limits to enable her to stay in power beyond 2015, a key ally said Monday.

But Fernandez made it clear at a post-election pep rally that she has no intention of changing her ways: “We’re going to keep deepening this transformation, because it’s our obligation,” she said.

Fernandez failed the first electoral test of her second term as the ruling party gathered just 26 percent of the votes nationwide — far below the 54 percent that re-elected her nearly two years ago, and five points below the party’s showing in the last mid-term elections.

But far from admit defeat, she urged her followers to redouble their efforts, and warned Argentines to beware of alternatives to her government.

“There may be other politicians showing up offering something different,” she added. “I ask that all of you think about what we’ve done in the last 10 years.”

The governing Front for Victory party remains the only political force in Argentina with a nationwide organization, but it trailed in every major city, including the capital and the all-important surrounding province of Buenos Aires, a traditional Kirchner stronghold, where 35 percent of the voters live.

With 98 percent of the vote counted, Sergio Massa’s Renewal Front commanded 35 percent of the vote in the key suburbs around Argentina’s capital, compared to 30 percent for the list led by the president’s hand-picked candidate, Martin Insaurralde.

Massa, who broke from Fernandez only 40 days before the primaries, sounded more like a candidate for the presidency than for the house of deputies in his victory speech. He invited people from all over Argentina’s polarized political landscape to join him in a new movement that would rule from the center, build coalitions and protect the middle class, a group that he said hasn’t been represented.

“We have to think of the future. We have to learn to stop looking at the past as a way to build a future for all Argentines,” Massa said. “We feel proud that the path we have chosen is one of unity in diversity, of coming together without aggression … the people who have joined us are saying ‘enough with confrontation in Argentina.”

Insaurralde, a 43-year-old mayor of Lomas de Zamora, was hand-picked by Fernandez and showered with attention as she sought to improve his name recognition. She even brought him to Rio de Janeiro for a photo-opportunity with Pope Francis.

Massa, the 41-year-old mayor of the wealthy riverfront Tigre municipality, briefly served as Fernandez’s Cabinet chief and now leads a breakaway branch of Peronism, the broad and splintered political movement that many Argentines claim some allegiance to.

Support for Fernandez has dropped amid corruption scandals, discontent over inflation, deteriorating public services and what many see as a weakening of institutions in the face of authoritarian presidential power.

Sunday’s vote was Argentina’s first obligatory nationwide primary, but most parties settled on “pre-candidates” beforehand and presented unified slates, turning the election into a party-popularity contest ahead of the Oct. 27 vote.

Fernandez hasn’t needed the votes of any opposition lawmakers to provide the quorums required to push through legislation or quash investigations. But with half the seats in Congress and a third of seats in the Senate up for grabs, her opponents are hoping to impose new checks on her power.

The president’s opponents — and even some of her allies — had raised the possibility that if the ruling party could increase its share of both houses to a solid two-thirds, it could change the constitution to eliminate term limits and keep her in power. Instead, the ruling party lost ground Sunday night, so much so that a key ally said the vote has definitively taken the idea off the political agenda.

Whoever wins big in October also could become a leading candidate to succeed Fernandez.

“Now it’s been definitively cleared up that there will be no constitutional reform, that there’s no possibility of a re-re-election,” said Ricardo Forster, a ruling party congressional candidate, told the radio La Red station on Monday. Forster said that’s a good thing for Argentina, since it will force her opponents to develop better platforms.

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Associated Press writer Debora Rey contributed to this report.

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