Court sides with Argentine ruling party in Tucuman vote dispute

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 21, 2015 2:18 PM

By Hugh Bronstein

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - A month-long row over allegations of fraud in an Argentine regional election appeared to end on Monday when the Supreme Court of Tucuman province confirmed the ruling party's win, reversing a lower court decision that had annulled the result.

The Tucuman scandal, which featured allegations of ballot burning and prompted opposition protests that were put down by club-wielding mounted police, raised questions about the integrity of Argentine elections just as the country gets set to choose a new president on Oct. 25.

The fraud allegations and TV images of violence were embarrassing for the ruling Front for Victory party and its presidential candidate Daniel Scioli.

The opposition says 42 ballot boxes were torched and voters bribed during Tucuman's Aug. 23 gubernatorial vote.

The court nonetheless ruled on Monday that candidate Juan Manzur won the contest by a margin of 12 percentage points over his chief rival Jose Cano, who was backed by leading opposition presidential candidates Mauricio Macri and Sergio Massa.

Cano may appeal Monday's decision to the federal Supreme Court, but analysts said Argentina's highest court was unlikely to strike down the ruling.

Scioli leads the opinion polls ahead of the presidential election, but he was slow to build momentum after his win in the Aug. 9 primary, in part due to the Tucuman scandal.

At stake in the Oct. 25 presidential vote is the direction Latin America's No. 3 economy will take after eight years of interventionist policies under President Cristina Fernandez, who is barred by law from seeking a third consecutive term in next month's election.

Running second in the opinion polls is Macri, the business-friendly mayor of Buenos Aires. He vows to quickly scrap currency and trade restrictions while Scioli talks of a more gradual shift toward open market policies.

On Sunday another Fernandez ally won the governorship of the southern province of Chaco.

"Considering the court decision in Tucuman and yesterday's results in Chaco, the Front for Victory and Scioli in particular seem stronger than in past weeks. Overall, these outcomes are positive for the incumbent party," said analyst Mariel Fornoni of polling firm Management & Fit.

The national government was quick to welcome Monday's ruling .

"The matter is now closed," said Cabinet Chief Anibal Fernandez, who last week called a lower court decision annulling the Tucuman election an "insult" to democracy.

(Additional reporting by Jorge Otaola; Editing by Richard Lough and Andrew Hay)