Opposition presidential candidate Alberto Fernández emerged from Argentina's PASO primaries with a huge victory over incumbent President Mauricio Macri on Sunday night, shocking the nation with a huge margin.
With 83 percent of votes counted, Fernaández had taken 47.32 percent to Macri's 32.49 percent, with 'third way' candidate Roberto Lavagna taking 8.43 percetn of the vote.
Three other candidates – left-winger Nicolás Del Caño (2.89 percent) of the Frente de Izquierda, former military officer Juan José Gómez Centurión (2.65 percent) of Frente NOS and economist Jose Luis Espert (2.24 percent) of Despetar – passed the 1.5-percent threshold to qualify for October's presidential vote.
Though the primaries were expected to be a close-fought battle, with many polls having tipped Fernández to come out on top by a margin of a few points, the near 15-percentage point lead with likely spook investors going into next week. The markets have been less than keen on the Fernández ticket, which is seconded by vice-presidential candidate Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who served as president from 2007 to 2015.
The margin of victory indicates Macri faces a huge challenge ahead if he is to win re-election. The president admitted as much on Sunday night, as he faced supporters before provisional numbers had even been announced. He had hoped to earn a second mandate, but his chances now appear all but over.
Around three-quarters of Argentina's 34 million eligible voters turned out for what was an obligatory vote, Interior Minister Rogelio Frigerio announced.
"We've had a bad election and that obligates us to redouble our efforts so that in October we will continue with change," Macri said in a late-night address to supporters.
"It hurts that we have not had all the support we expected," said the Juntos por el Cambio leader from his campaign bunker, accompanied by the main figures of his coalition.
Macri has the support of financial markets and Washington, but has lost popularity amid discontent over austerity measures and low growth. He says he is taking the necessary, painful steps to get the economy going after 12 years of populism under Fernández de Kirchner and her predecessor and late husband, Néstor Kirchner.
Before results were released, Fernández was confident, declaring that "with me la grieta is over, forever," a reference to the fierce polarisation Argentina has experienced.
"A new time begins," he told reporters.
While the results nationwide drew the most attention, some other closely watched races caught the eye too. None more so than Buenos Aires Province, where Governor María Eugenia Vidal – one of the highest-polling politicians in the country – was routed by the Frente de Todos challenger, former economy minister Axel Kicillof.
With more than 60 percent of the vote countred, Kicillof had taken nearly half the vote in the country's most-populous province, 49.21 percent, with Vidal taking 32.74 pecent. Around six percent of votes were blank.
The Peronist coalition also scored big victories in Entre Ríos and Jujuy, where their lead was almost 20-percentage points.
Primaries in Argentina are held simultaneously and obligatory voting made Sunday's contest effectively a litmus test test for the scheduled October 27 presidential election, since the main parties chose their nominees in back-rooms.
Fernández was Fernández de Kirchner's Cabinet chief during her initial term in 2007-2011, but many interpret a vote for their ticket as a vote of confidence for the former leader, who has a reliable base of supporters.
The Frente de Todos campaign which the duo head had repeatedly argued that Macri must be defeated so they can fight poverty, homelessness and the economic downturn.
"After the primaries we will convoke all Argentines to unite to resolve the infinite problems that we have," Fernández said after casting his ballot on Sunday morning.
Analysts were awaiting final tallies to determine the margin of victory between the two leading candidates, but the wide spread revealed the considerable depth of Macri's weakness, potentially positioning the Frente de Todos ticket to win outright in the first round of voting.
To be elected president in Argentina in the first round, candidates need to finish first with at least 45 percent of the votes or have 40 percent and a greater than 10-point advantage over the nearest rival. If no candidate wins outright in October, there will be a November run-off.
Political analyst Raúl Aragon had said before the vote that "it would be very difficult to claw back a difference of five points due to polarization: there's no scope to claim votes."
The president now faces the unenviable prospect of having to somehow find three times as many.