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#Argentina votes in polarised presidential elections

Voters choose replacement for President Cristina Kirchner who is stepping down after eight years in power.

Argentina votes

Argentines are heading to the polls to elect their next president after 12 years of being under the leadership of Nestor Kirchner and then his widow Cristina Kirchner.

The South American country's 32 million voters, who are required to cast ballots on Sunday, are also electing their representatives in Congress and regional bloc Mercosur. Eleven of the country's 23 provinces are also electing governors and other officials.

Cristina Kirchner is not able to run again but has picked a successor, Buenos Aires provincial Governor Daniel Scioli, who is a member of the ruling party.

On Sunday as she cast her ballot, Kirchner said: "It's a very special day for me because I am voting in a normal country. In the past we have seen handovers that were in crises, with protests on the streets, and now we are in a normal country".

Scioli is challenged by Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri and congressman Sergio Massa.

In a wealthy part of Buenos Aires, people came out early to cast their ballots.

"This is our chance to get rid of this government. Argentina is an outcast of the world because of their policies", voter Constanza Acosta said.

But in working class neighbourhoods, the feeling was completely different.

"We are voting for Scioli, for continuation of what Cristina Kirchner has done for us", Victor Gonzalez said.

Scioli has vowed to uphold the core elements of "Kirchnerism," a populist creed built around trade protectionism, social welfare and defence of the working classes.

But the 58-year-old has also vowed a change in style to attract more investment and increase productivity, and has assembled an economic team of free-marketeers.

His top rival is Macri, the candidate of Argentines fed up with what they see as the Kirchners' heavy-handed economic policy and belligerent politics.

Macri, 56, rose to prominence as the boss of Argentina's most popular football club, Boca Juniors, which won a string of titles under his reign.

Massa, a former Kirchner ally who fell out with the president and launched a rival party, the Renewal Front, two years ago, could also have a serious impact on the election.

Potential run-off election

Under Argentine electoral law, in order to win outright in the first round, a candidate must claim more than 45 percent of the vote, or at least 40 percent with a margin of 10 points over the runner-up.

Opinion polls put Scioli just shy of 40 percent, with Macri at around 30 percent and Massa at around 20 percent.

That means the country could be headed for its first-ever runoff election, on November 22.

"There's no doubt about who will come in first and second. The real question is whether there will be a second round," pollster Ricardo Rouvier said.

Nestor Kirchner came to office in 2003, in the aftermath of a devastating economic crisis that triggered what was then the largest sovereign debt default in history and sparked deadly riots in the streets.

He presided over a stunning turnaround underpinned by average economic growth of more than eight percent a year, fuelled by high prices for Argentina's agricultural exports.

He handed power to his wife in 2007. They were widely expected to continue this term-for-term tango, but Nestor died of a heart attack in 2010.

Cristina, a former senator, defended his legacy all the more combatively and won re-election in 2011.

But the economic magic of the early Kirchner years has faded.

Troubled economy

When Argentina's next president takes office on December 10, he will inherit a country troubled by inflation, an overvalued currency and an economy facing what the International Monetary Fund predicts will be a 0.7 percent contraction next year.

Argentina, Latin America's largest economy after Brazil and Mexico, is also still waging a legal battle against two American hedge funds that reject its plans to restructure the $100bn in debt it defaulted on in 2001.

The firms, which Kirchner condemns as "vulture funds," successfully sued for full payment in US federal court. Kirchner's refusal to pay them pushed Argentina into a new default last year.

Her tenure has also been marked by acrimonious battles with big media, the courts and over the Falklands War with Britain.

"The world is going to watch the new president's first 24 hours very carefully. He will have to deliver a message to convince people that Argentina is a country where they can invest, with clear rules," said political analyst Pablo Knopoff.

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