BUENOS AIRES — Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner suffered a blow to her political project Sunday night, with her Peronist Party losing power in both houses of Congress.
Even more devastating, her husband, former President Nestor Kirchner, conceded defeat in his bid for a congressional seat, a move that was intended to buoy support for the first couple but backfired.
Argentina's new Congress doesn't take office until December, which gives Fernandez time to push through her socialist policies, but the election might force her into a more conciliatory position. It also changes the balance of power for Kirchner, who's dominated the Argentine political scene for six years and had been expected to run for president again in 2011.
"It closes the chapter of the Kirchners," said Riordan Roett, the director of the Latin American Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies in Washington.
Kirchner, who headed a list of candidates in the crucial province of Buenos Aires, home to more than 30 percent of Argentina's eligible voters, acknowledged early Monday that he lost with 32.2 percent of the vote, behind Francisco de Narvaez with 34.5 percent.
De Narvaez is also a Peronist, but he's one of a growing number of dissidents. Kirchner's loss opens space for new leadership in the party after Kirchner, who's considered a powerful force in his wife's government, has dominated the party for years.
"The bad politics of old has been defeated," De Narvaez said at his campaign headquarters.
The shift of power is welcomed by many, even though De Narvaez is a relative newcomer. "I am not sure what will change, but I prefer new people and new faces," said Rodrigo Masardo, a restaurant owner in Buenos Aires. "The nation is ready for a change."
Kirchner had warned voters that a vote against him would be devastating for the economy and the poor because it would stand in the way of the Peronists' socialist policies. Fernandez has nationalized the country's pension system and a major airline and attempted to raise taxes on agricultural exports.
Fernandez will face a more divided Congress, which could be an obstacle to some of her more controversial moves. With Peronists and their allies holding a majority in the legislature, she's been able to push through many pieces of legislation, but according to partial election results, the Peronists have lost that majority.
"It will not be gridlock," said Federico Thomsen, an economic and political analyst in Buenos Aires, "but they will face a more difficult Congress. There will have to be more negotiating."
Kirchner once enjoyed what seemed to be fail-safe support among the public after he shepherded the country out of a 2001-02 financial crisis. However, his wife's approval rating has plummeted, with only a quarter of the population supporting her presidency.
Many Argentines see the couple as increasingly authoritarian. A battle with farmers last year over export taxes cost her support in rural areas, and she faces a cooling economy.
Some hope that Fernandez will change course. Roett said she might start to address some of the larger problems, such as widely discredited inflation numbers. "If they lose, there (could be) a reorganization of the cabinet, bringing together more pragmatic people and also a rethinking of economic policies," he said.
Fernandez and Kirchner, however, also could try to forge ahead by decree, said Pablo Ava, a political analyst and vice president of Fundacion FINES, a social and economic research organization. "They could try to make many policy decisions without consensus," he said.
Whether they do may depend on how they define Sunday's defeat.
"This was a very close election," Kirchner said. "We lost by a little bit."
Miller Llana is a staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor.
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