BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – From the tables of Buenos Aires pizza parlors to the fields of this South American nation's farmlands, Argentines are intensely debating a question they must answer during Sunday's presidential runoff election: How large a role should the government play in their lives?
At the center of the debate is the contentious legacy of outgoing President Cristina Fernandez and "Kirchnerismo," the political movement aligned with the poor that she created with her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner.
During 12 years in power, the power couple rewrote Argentina's social contract, gaining both impassioned followers and fierce critics. They designed programs for the poor, nationalized the YPF oil company, raised tariffs on imports to protect and develop local economies and passed laws to aid the elderly, handicapped people, homosexuals and other groups on the margins, such as becoming in 2010 the first Latin American nation to legalize gay marriage.
Fernandez's chosen successor, Daniel Scioli, presents himself as the continuation of such policies — he calls them "the national project" — while promising to make fixes where necessary. Opposition candidate Mauricio Macri promises to maintain a safety net for the poor but says he will overhaul the economy to address inflation estimated around 30 percent and a byzantine monetary system that has spawned a booming black market.
"The big question is the degree to which voters feel comfortable with continuity with a twist versus complete change," said Jason Marczak, deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
That's a weighty proposition in a nation where most people are old enough to remember the 2001-2002 financial melt-down, when Argentina defaulted on $100 billion in debt and millions of people were plunged into poverty.
If last month's first electoral round is an indication, Argentines are mulling their options. Scioli, the governor of the Buenos Aires province, got 37 percent of the vote compared to 34 percent for Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires. The tight finish meant a runoff, and both men have been scrambling to appeal to the nearly 30 percent of voters who picked one of the other four candidates in the first round.
Macri has emerged as the front-runner, with several polls giving him an 8-point lead. But those same polling companies predicted Scioli would win the first round by more than 10 percentage points, which indicates the race is up for grabs.
During a debate last weekend, Scioli argued that Macri's policies would eliminate subsidies, cut programs for the poor and provoke a sharp devaluation of the Argentine peso.
"Who will pay the price of lifting subsidies?" asked Scioli, a former speed boat racer who lost his right arm in an accident. "Families need to know how they will pay their light, gas and transportation bills."
Macri accused Scioli of distorting his proposals. But he also argued an overhaul is needed to jump start the economy after four years of stagnation.
"Argentina can only grow with a government that will tell the truth," said Macri, who comes from one of the country's richest families and gained a national profile as president of a popular soccer club Boca Juniors.
Beyond the sluggish economy, voters are thinking about allegations of corruption involving people in Fernandez's administration and the president herself, a rise in crime and drug trafficking and accusations of government's mismanagement of the social programs it frequently touts.
"The government has created a factory that produces lazy bums," said Guillermo Boianelli, who owns a recycling center on Buenos Aires' outskirts and plans to vote for Macri.
Gladys Malverde, a mother of five who plans to vote for Scioli, sees it differently. She earns $275 a month cleaning buildings in a government jobs program that she says has helped her return to school to study nursing.
"If Cristina could run again, we would all vote for her," said Malverde, who like many Argentines refers to the president by her first name.
Constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term, Fernandez still has been a force in the campaign — an object of both adoration and scorn in a deeply polarized country of 41 million people.
Scioli has embraced Fernandez's policies while presenting himself as his own man capable of fixing huge problems, including a long-standing fight with bond holders in New York federal court that has kept Argentina on the margins of international credit markets.
Macri has criticized Scioli for aligning with Fernandez. But he also praises many government moves, such as nationalizing Aerolineas Argentinas.
He even inaugurated a statue of Juan Peron, a three-time president and founder of a working class movement that helped inspire Kirchnerismo. The ceremony raised eyebrows because Macri's overarching ideology is free-market, but it underscored the resonance of the government's hand in society, a force not easily discarded.
"We know that people want change and that Kirchnerismo will come to an end" when Fernandez leaves office, said Roberto Bacman, director of the Center for Public Opinion Studies, a South American research firm. "But therein lies the real question: What will change mean?"
Peter Prengaman on Twitter: http://twitter.com/peterprengaman . His stories can be found at: http://bigstory.ap.org/search/site/Peter%20Prengaman .