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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – President Cristina Fernandez and her late husband dominated Argentine politics for 12 years, focusing on social welfare programs for the poor at home while often employing combative rhetoric and protectionist policies with other nations.
Voters are getting a chance Sunday to help decide whether those policies are likely to continue in the South American nation of 41 million as they cast ballots in open primaries for presidential candidates who have all but sealed the nominations in their respective parties.
For the candidates vying to replace Fernandez, the primaries will help them judge how their campaigns are faring ahead of the Oct. 25 general elections — and how closely they should align themselves to the social welfare policies of Fernandez's political movement, known as Kirchnerismo.
Daniel Scioli, the governor of the Buenos Aires province and a former vice president, is Fernandez's successor candidate. He has praised Fernandez's policies but also promised to make reforms where necessary and be more amicable in dealings with other countries.
Mauricio Macri, the outgoing mayor of Buenos Aires and former president of Boca Junior soccer club, is the top opposition candidate. He has promised to make the country more business friendly and lift restrictions on citizens' ability to buy U.S. dollars — a promise the government and some economists say isn't realistic.
Meanwhile, Sergio Massa, who has held cabinet and elective posts and broke with Fernandez, is running on his own ticket and promises to jail corrupt politicians.
Scioli has led the pack in the polls for several months, and is up by as many as 10 points over Macri in the most recent surveys.
Fernandez is constitutionally barred from running for a third term. Fernandez's late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, was elected in 2003 and served one term before she ran.
"For the first time since 2003, we are going to have elections with two candidates who have a good chance of winning,"said Patricio Giusto, director of Political Diagnostic, an Argentine think tank.
Candidates will also vie for nominations for several governor and congressional slots. Only candidates with at least 1.5 percent of the vote in their respective races can continue to the general elections, effectively eliminating many minority party candidates.
The primaries come at a time when the nation known for its soccer players, tango dancing and choice beef is struggling with myriad economic problems. Independent analysts put inflation at over 30 percent and the Argentine peso has slide sharply against the American dollar in recent months. A long-standing dispute with a group of U.S. hedge funds has kept foreign investors away.
The major candidates have addressed these issues, making promises such as keeping inflation under 10 percent, but failing to detail how such reforms would be achieved.
Political analysts say the margin between Scioli and Macri will be key. If Scioli wins by a significant margin, his campaign would be on pace to win the October election with at least the 45 percent of the vote needed to avoid a runoff.
If Macri wins the primary or is close to Scioli, a runoff in November will be more likely. That would benefit Macri, who would likely pick up many opposition and independent votes.