BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — The leading opposition candidate in Argentina's presidential election took a razor-thin lead over President Cristina Fernandez's chosen successor early Monday, a surprise that months of national polls failed to anticipate.
With 72 percent of polling places reporting from Sunday's election, Mauricio Macri had 36 percent of the votes, compared to 35 percent for ruling party candidate Daniel Scioli. Sergio Massa, a former Fernandez loyalist who broke away to form his own political movement, had 21 percent.
The tight race means that a Nov. 22 runoff between Macri and Scioli is certain. To win, a candidate needed 45 percent of the votes or 40 percent and a 10-point advantage over the nearest competitor.
Scioli had been viewed as the easy front-runner thanks to the support of Fernandez, who won admirers for rewriting Argentina's social contract but also drew sharp criticism for her brash tactics. Numerous polls had predicted Scioli would win by more than 10 points, indicating the only question was whether he could gain enough votes to avoid a runoff.
The strong showing by Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires, underscored that many voters are ready for change after 12 years of Kirchnerismo, the political movement founded by Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor as president, Nestor Kirchner.
"What happened today changes the politics of this country," Macri told supporters late Sunday, adding that he would work to gain the confidence of those who had not voted for him this round.
Scioli, the governor of the Buenos Aires province and a former vice president, presented himself as the continuation of Fernandez's policies who would also fix anything broken.
Even before any results were released, Scioli seemed to be hinting that there would be a runoff.
"I invite undecided and independent (voters) to join me in this great celebration of Argentine development," Scioli told a gathering of supporters.
Macri presented himself as the candidate to put Argentina's economy in order, promising to resolve a fight with U.S. creditors and lift unpopular currency restrictions.
But he also tailored his campaign to the millions who receive some form of government support. He promised to maintain popular programs for the poor and increase spending in some areas. He even inaugurated a statue of Juan Peron, a three-time former president who founded the ideological movement to which Fernandez adheres.
While those moves raised eyebrows and drew sharp criticism from Scioli, they likely helped Macri capture undecided voters.
Many Argentines are worried about high government spending and inflation around 30 percent as well as being concerned about the long-running legal fight with creditors in the U.S. that has kept the country out of international credit markets.
"With Cristina, we are outside the world community," said Beatriz Garcia Tunon, a retired teacher. "This government has been a disaster."
Still Argentines have a nightmarish reference point for a truly bad economy: the financial collapse of 2001-2002, when the country defaulted on $100 billion in debt and overnight millions of middle class people were impoverished.
"The economy is OK. It's not great," said Maria Victoria Murillo, an expert on Argentine politics at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. "But for Argentina, OK is pretty good."
Fernandez and her late husband are widely credited with lifting the nation after the collapse. Fernandez sharply increased spending on social welfare programs, which range from work training to stipends for single mothers. Her government was the first in Latin America to legalize gay marriage, and it nationalized airline Aerolineas Argentinas and the YPF oil company while strengthening ties with Russia and China.
Scioli, a former boat racer who lost his right arm in an accident in 1989, bristled at suggestions that Fernandez would continue to dominate behind the scenes.
"What Scioli would do in office is a mystery," said Maria Fernandez, who owns a real estate company. "Will he take orders from Cristina or do something else?"
"I don't want to find out," added Fernandez, who was voting for Macri.