Argentina's midterms cast shadow over Cristina Fernández de Kirchner

Third term hopes fade for president and leader of Front for Victory party after election setback

The political vultures are circling in Argentina after President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner suffered a setback in midterm polls that sharply diminishes her prospects of standing for a third term.

Following major losses for her party in key electoral battlegrounds on Sunday, rival candidates both inside and out of the ruling Peronist camp are staking a claim for the presidential election in 2015.

Still recovering from brain surgery earlier this month, the 60 year-old now faces arguably the toughest challenge of her political life if she is to continue a decade-long residency in the Casa Rosada that began with the election of her husband Nestor Kirchner in 2003.

In Sunday's poll support for the ruling Front for Victory party plunged to 33%, down from 54% when Fernández won her second term in 2011. Some of the biggest losses were in the most important districts, such as Santa Fe, Cordoba and Mendoza. In Buenos Aires, home to more than one in three voters, Fernández's chosen candidate was crushed by more than 12 percentage points.

The winner in the Buenos Aires province race, Sergio Massa, is now among the favourites to be the nation's next president. A former minister in Fernández's cabinet, Massa quit the government and ran as a candidate for the Renewal Front, a breakaway faction within Fernández's party.

"Sergio will be the most-voted-for leader in the entire country with this election. This is an overwhelming response by the people to our times," said Dario Giustozzi, another Renewal Front candidate. "This is the end of an era, a new space. Now the people have a place where they can be heard."

Another former ally and possible successor is former vice-president Julio Cobos who outran the Front for Victory with 47.88% of the vote against 28.18% for the president's candidate in the prosperous wine-growing province of Mendoza.

The conservative camp also revelled in the apparent shift in the political winds. With a 40% vote for one of its candidates standing for senator, the right-of-centre PRO party is optimistic that its leader, Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri, can make a strong run in 2015. "This makes us a real alternative for the presidential elections in 2015," said Diego Santilli of PRO party at a colourful celebration.

The desire for change has focused on the economy, crime, and growing concern about corruption. Although GDP has grown at about 3% this year, public concerns have focused on high inflation, estimated to be two to three times higher than the official rate of 10%, and foreign exchange controls that have created a black market for dollars at twice the government's formal rate.

The president has also been debilitated by health concerns. Earlier this month she underwent surgery to remove blood that pooled on her brain after a fall in August. Although the operation is said to have gone well, Fernández has been unable to campaign during her 30-day convalescence and doctors forbade her from flying to Santa Cruz where she normally casts her vote.

Although Fernández has never publicly stated a desire to run for a third term, her supporters wanted to amend the constitution so she could stand again. That now appears an extremely difficult goal even for such a wily political operator as Fernández, who may have to concentrate on her health and her legacy, while her party looks for a new candidate.

But the president cannot yet be dismissed as a lame duck. She has proved in the past that she is capable of surprising comebacks, and her party narrowly held on its majority in both houses.

Fernández also remains easily the most recognised politician in the country. Since her surgery, polls suggest the president's popularity has improved and now stands at about 44%.

But concerns about her health may make this a comeback too far. Despite reassurances about her condition from her aides, the president has not been seen in public since her operation. The longer she stays out of sight, the more the doubts will grow.

One critic, Elisa Carrió of the UNEN party, has questioned the president's competenence to maintain power even until 2015. "We are heading towards tremendous economic, social and political difficulties, two years of government are still ahead and we don't know if we have a president," Carrió said on TN television on Monday. "Cristina is not here today and we don't know if she is coming back."

• This article was amended on 29 October 2013 to clarify that Sergio Massa won in the province of Buenos Aires.

Contributors

Jonathan Watts, Latin America correspondent, and Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires

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