Argentina’s election season got underway with a bang on Sunday with notable results in the twin Patagonian provinces of Neuquén and Río Negro.
National deputy Rolando Figueroa, running for the opposition-backed Comunidad coalition, stormed to victory in the gubernatorial race in shale-rich Neuquén, defeating the ruling party's candidate Marcos Koopmann by a margin of 2.5 percent.
Figueroa’s win means that the Movimiento Popular Neuquino (MPN), which has held the office since 1962, except for the periods of military rule, has been toppled from power for the first time since the return of democracy.
The governor-elect, however, is no stranger to the MPN. He emerged from the party and served as lieutenant-governor until two years ago, when he broke off to form a new coalition for the 2021 legislative elections.
Figueroa, 54, will succeed Omar Gutiérrez as governor in December and will take office at a crucial time, with oil production booming at the Vaca Muerta shale patch and further exploitation favoured by both government and opposition.
The Comunidad candidate, leading a coalition of nine parties, took 35.61 percent of the vote on Sunday night with 98 percent of the polling stations reporting. Koopmann, his main rival and the current lieutenant-governor, had 33.08 percent, while Ramón Rioseco, representing Frente de Todos, came in third with 12.74 percent.
The result is a good omen for the opposition and particularly PRO, the party of former president Mauricio Macri, which backed Figueroa's run for office. Coalition allies Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) backed their deputy Pablo Cervi, who trailed in fourth with just 3.75 percent. The Cumplir slate led by Carlos Eguía, libertarian Javier Milei's gubernatorial candidate, took eight percent.
Macri hailed the victory as a “historic triumph” in a post on Twitter on Sunday night, comparing the result to Argentina’s victory at the 2022 football World Cup in Qatar.
Figueroa, however, did not echo PRO’s language in his victory speech. He rejected polarisation and underlined that his coalition – which included Peronists and representatives from PRO, the UCR, Coalición Cívica, and others – signed up to "a great Neuquén agreement" which he said would improve the provincial government.
"The result of this election showed that the grieta [rift] is bad, it hurts and it is a message to the whole country," said the governor-elect.
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"The first words are of gratitude to the people of Neuquén for a civic day," said Figueroa as he arrived at his bunker in the provincial capital to celebrate with party activists and his running-mate Gloria Ruiz.
Voters in the region also went to the polls to elect 35 provincial deputies, mayors and local councillors.
In neighbouring Río Negro, national senator Alberto Weretilneck sealed his return to the provincial government helm after a four-year absence, confirming polling prior to the vote and benefitting from a split Peronist vote.
"I thank the people of Río Negro in the 40th year of democracy. I thank those who trusted us, the great Rio Negro agreement. I want to thank the Justicialist Party, Nuevo Encuentro and all the members of the UCR," said the governor-elect, who held the same office from 2012 to 2019.
Weretilneck, running for Juntos Somos Río Negro, won with 41.08 per cent of the vote against 24.28 percent for Aníbal Tortoriello of Cambia Río Negro, with 87 percent of polling stations counted.
Third place was held by Silvia Horne of Vamos con Todos (representing Frente de Todos under a new label with the support of Justice Minister Martín Soria while Senator Martín Doñate and La Cámpora opted for the winner) with 10.61 percent, with Ariel Rivero, the libertarian candidate, taking 9.35 percent.
Authorities were also tallying ballots for the election of more than 40 provincial deputies, along with a host of local mayors and councillors.
In local elections, Juntos por el Cambio also won control of Trelew, with their candidate Gerard Merino elected as mayor after seeing off five Peronist candidates.
The vote was the first in the provincial electoral calendar in Chubut. Governor Mariano Arcioni has not yet defined whether he will split the elections or combine them with the national vote in October.