Argentine gov't loses congress majority, seeks opposition dialogue
Argentina's President Alberto Fernandez (C), Buenos Aires province Governor Axel Kicillof (3-R), legislator Maximo Kirchner (2-R), legislator-elect Victoria Tolosa Paz (R), legislator Sergio Massa (3-L), legislators-elect Leandro Santor (2-L) and Gisela Marziotta of the ruling "Frente de Todos" party are seen with supporters after the mid-term parliamentary elections in Buenos Aires, on November 14, 2021. AFP
Argentina's centre-left President Alberto Fernandez called for dialogue with the opposition after Sunday's midterm parliamentary elections, with projections showing his governing coalition has lost control of Congress.
Having already held a minority in the lower house Chamber of Deputies, Fernandez's Frente de Todos (Everyone's Front) coalition looked set to drop from 41 to 35 seats in the 72-member Senate, based on projections with more than 90 percent of votes counted.
"If the numbers are confirmed, effectively we've lost the quorum in the Senate," a government source told AFP.
Ahead of the election there was widespread discontent over an economy hit hard by the Covid pandemic.
Fernandez will now likely be forced to make concessions to the opposition during the last two years of his mandate in order to pass laws or make key appointments, including to the judiciary.
"We need to prioritize national agreements if we want to resolve the challenges we face," said Fernandez in a speech, adding that he would approach opposition groups to try to find common ground on an agenda.
"An opposition that is responsible and open to dialogue is a patriotic opposition," he said, adding that he hoped for cooperation that would be "fruitful, for the general interests of the country."
Nearly half the Chamber of Deputies seats were up for grabs, as well as a third of Senate seats in Sunday's vote.
Interior Minister Wado de Pedro said turnout in the compulsory election was between 71 and 72 percent.
IMF debt looms
Fernandez had been on the defensive since the Frente suffered a bruising defeat in September's primaries, picking up just 33 percent of the vote compared to 37 percent for the main opposition group Juntos por el Cambio (Together for Change), led by Fernandez's predecessor Mauricio Macri.
The country has been in recession since 2018, with GDP dropping 9.9 percent last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Argentina has one of the world's highest inflation rates, at 40 percent so far this year, and a poverty rate of 42 percent for a population of 45 million.
"I fear for the economy," pastry worker Oscar Navarro told AFP on Sunday, without revealing his vote. "Salaries are not sufficient. Whoever wins, it will take a long time for the country to recover."
The primaries setback unleashed a political crisis pitting Fernandez against his deputy president and coalition partner Cristina Kirchner, who pressured her boss into a cabinet reshuffle in the hopes of appeasing an increasingly frustrated electorate.
The government is also in the midst of a tricky renegotiation with the International Monetary Fund over the repayment of a $44 billion debt, originally secured by the Macri government in 2018.
"In this new stage we will deepen our efforts to secure a sustainable deal with the IMF," said Fernandez.
He said the country needed to get past the "uncertainties that come with unsustainable debt," while creating jobs and reducing inflation.
If Fernandez does not manage to reach a new repayment schedule, Argentina will have to repay $19 billion in 2022 and as much again in 2023.
'Difficult' two years ahead
Since the primaries, the government had been in damage limitation mode, announcing last month a deal with the private sector to freeze prices on more than 1,500 basic goods following street protests demanding greater food subsidies.
It has also increased the minimum wage and family allowances.
While Fernandez promised to focus on the country's immediate concerns, candidates were already racing towards the presidential elections of 2023.
"These next two years are going to be difficult," said Macri, the opposition leader, while assuring voters that his coalition would "act with great responsibility."
Liliana Marquez, a hospital worker, said she hoped the opposition would prevail. "I have never trusted these Peronist governments," she said, adding that she supported Macri's movement "because I cannot find an alternative."
The government's supporters have been forced to keep a low profile during the long pandemic lockdowns. But pro-government trade unions and social organizations recently announced they would march in support of Fernandez on Wednesday, regardless of the election results.
Many eyes were on Buenos Aires province, a traditional bastion of Peronists, including Fernandez's party, but where Macri's Juntos made great strides in September.