BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Argentina's leading presidential candidate dismisses claims that he won't remain independent from outgoing President Cristina Fernandez and says he would seek to bridge divisions in this politically polarized South American country.
Daniel Scioli is the ruling party's candidate and Fernandez's chosen successor, but he appears to take a more conciliatory line than his predecessor who repeatedly butted heads with opponents and world financial markets.
"The people are looking for a leader like me who seeks to integrate," Scioli said in an interview with The Associated Press on Saturday during the halftime break of an indoor soccer game that he was playing in the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
"And I did just that in every position I was trusted with in Argentina. People know of my ability to search, for what Pope Francis calls the meeting points," Scioli said about the Argentina-born pontiff.
Scioli, who has been the country's vice president and the governor of Buenos Aires province, recently finished first in the open primaries, and will face a run-off election on Oct. 25. If elected, Scioli said he would rule for all Argentines, not just his party.
Many Argentines are calling for change amid frustration with one of the world's highest inflation rates, government currency and trade controls and corruption accusations that have penetrated deep into Fernandez's inner circle.
"There are always things that need changing but the Argentine people don't want to return to an indebted past, they want things to be better, and that's what I represent," Scioli said.
Mauricio Macri, the outgoing mayor of Buenos Aires and leading opposition candidate, is the clear favorite of the business community, in part because of a promise to lift government restrictions on buying U.S. dollars. Macri is also calling for more transparency in government spending and how economic statistics are gathered.
Scioli said Argentina, one of the world's top suppliers of agricultural commodities, needs to increase production. But he believes the nation of 40 million is on firm ground and there should not be big changes to the economy.
"We need to work for a more efficient economy and gradually tackle the issues," said Scioli, a former power boat champion who lost his right arm in a 1989 crash. "The road is not cutbacks, or salary cuts like the opposition has said."
Restoring Argentina's sense of pride and sovereignty after Argentina's worst economic crisis in 2001 has been the central goal of Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner. The presidential couple negotiated or paid off most of Argentina's defaulted debt, nationalized the pension system, kept energy cheap through subsidies and dug deep into the treasury to redirect revenue to the poor through handouts.
"Argentina is a country that has paid its debts," Scioli said. "It has the lowest jobless rate at 6.5 percent, a solid level of reserves, intelligent people, scientific talent, agricultural commodities, livestock, mining, tourism. What we need is investments."
Argentina has one of the world's largest deposits of shale oil and gas, but only a few companies have made commitments to develop the fields because many fear the government's interventionist energy policies.