Argentine vote beginning of end for Kirchner dynasty

Argentines vote Sunday in legislative elections that also mark the beginning of the end of the 10-year political dynasty now run by feisty and divisive President Cristina Kirchner.

As 30 million are called to the polls in this agricultural powerhouse to elect half of the lower chamber of Congress and a third of the Senate, all eyes are looking ahead to presidential voting in 2015.

Kirchner's young and relatively inexperienced former chief of staff, Sergio Massa, 41, has broken with her and formed a splinter Peronist party and is considered the man to watch.

The 60-year-old standard bearer of the populist Peronist movement will be barred from running for a third term in 2015 and many see Sunday's vote as the start of the race to replace her.

Her Front for Victory is expected to retain control of the legislature, but polls suggest it will lose seats to both Massa's Peronist faction and to the divided right and left-wing opposition parties.

The social and economic backdrop is not pretty: the economy is weak, crime is high and so is inflation. Kirchner's approval rating is about 30 percent, having fallen fast since her re-election win in 2011.

Normally a fixture on TV and in other media, she has been totally absent from the election campaign this time, as she is recovering from surgery to remove a blood clot from her brain two weeks ago.

Mariel Fornoni, head of pollster Management & Fit, said the election is very important because an era is ending.

"Cristina Kirchner cannot be re-elected. It is a cycle that is ending, and a point of departure. Monday is the beginning of the race for the presidential election of 2015 and control of Peronism," Fornoni said.

Kirchner is a polarizing figure.

The business class dislike her failure to control inflation and protectionist economics; import restrictions, the nationalization of companies such as energy giant YPF and foreign exchange controls.

Critics are also dubious of her foreign policy alignment with anti-Western governments in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.

But poorer people love her for fight against poverty, generous social welfare programs and improvements in retirement pensions.

Fornoni said that when Kirchner won re-election in 2011 -- she first succeeded her husband Nestor when he died of a heart attack in 2010 -- her approval rating was a handsome 64 percent.

But that has plummeted because of the economy, the president's confrontational style and her denial that inflation and crime were serious woes, she said. The approval number is down to 30 percent.

"And that translates into fewer votes," Fornoni said.

As the campaign closed Thursday, Massa, currently mayor of the tourist town of Tigre, said he would fight crime and inflation but did not go into specifics.

For businesses, he said he would lower taxes on wheat exports and give tax breaks to companies that reinvest profits.

His Front for Renewal party is running only in sprawling Buenos Aires province, which accounts for 40 percent of the electorate and is a pro-government stronghold.

But he will be in good shape to run for president in 2015 if he does well on Sunday.

Massa's main opponent is Kirchner ally Martin Insaurralde, 43, who accuses Massa of looking to the past by allegedly filling his electoral lists with neo-liberals of the kind that ran Argentina in the 1990s.

Voters have been bombarded with TV ads but the campaign has largely failed to excikte the national mood.

One of the ads running of late pays tribute to Nestor Kirchner as the election falls on the third anniversary of his death.

And one novelty is that 600,000 people aged 16 to 18 will be voting for the first time.

Despite the lackluster campaign, out on the street, it is clear that Kirchner is divisive. People refer to themselves as being either K -- for Kirchner-ites -- or anti-K.

"For about the past two years, I no longer talk politics with some of my friends and certain members of my family," said Malena Saavedra, a 45-year-old economist.

An elegantly dressed woman named Maria del Carmen, 56, put it this way: "You can talk about football, but not about politics. If you do not think the way I do, you are the enemy. You are against me. You are fascist."