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Incumbent Macri the underdog as Argentina heads to the polls

Buenos Aires

ARGENTINES headed to the polls on Sunday, after a year of twists and turns in a dramatic election race that has been chastening for conservative President Mauricio Macri, who trails well behind Peronist rival Alberto Fernandez in opinion polls.

Around the country, in an overcast Buenos Aires, amid the Pampas farmlands and the vineyards of Mendoza, polling stations opened their doors at 8am. Voting went on until 6pm (2100 GMT), with the first results expected a few hours later.

The ballot - which many have already called for Mr Fernandez - is effectively a referendum between Mr Macri's tough-love austerity and the "social contract" of the left-leaning opposition, whose populism has lured voters, hurt badly by a snarling economic crisis.

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Argentina's choice could have far-reaching implications: it is one the world's top grain exporters, is stirring the energy world with its huge Vaca Muerta shale field and is on the cusp of restructuring talks with creditors over US$100 billion in debt.

"What's in play in this election are simply two opposing views of the country," said José Luis Salomón, mayor of farming town Saladillo, who is supporting Mr Macri and holds out hope that he can force a second round.

Not many agree. Mr Fernandez, a relative unknown until this year outside Argentine political circles, holds a 20-point lead in most opinion polls after thumping Mr Macri in an August primary, a shock result that rattled markets as investors feared a populist political shift.

That result - and the sharp market crash that followed - radically altered the dynamic of the race, pushing the country further into economic crisis and making Mr Macri the underdog in an election that most had thought would be a close-run affair.

The economy has taken centre stage with the country in the grip of recession for most of the last year, the outlook for growth darkening, annual inflation over 50 per cent, job numbers down and poverty up sharply.

The conservative incumbent won backers with plans to reform Argentina's notoriously closed economy with trade deals and a successful push to lure foreign investment into energy projects and infrastructure.

Mr Macri's reforms plans, however, were badly hit in 2018 when a currency and debt crisis forced him to strike a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for an eventual US$57 billion to help the country to pay its bills.

Mr Fernández now looks set to take over Mr Macri's mantle - as well as ongoing negotiations with creditors, including the IMF, about restructuring over US$100 billion in sovereign debt amid fears the country could face a damaging default.

Mr Fernandez, running with populist ex-president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, won the primary by almost 16 points, a feat which if repeated on Sunday would hand him the presidency outright, without needing a second round run-off. REUTERS