Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, president of Argentina. Photographer: Diego Giudice/Bloomberg
Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, president of Argentina. Photographer: Diego Giudice/Bloomberg

Argentina’s political opposition is hailing the outcome of last weekend's midterm elections as the demise of the Kirchner era -- a decade dominated by the populist policies of leftist President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Nestor Kirchner, her deceased husband and predecessor.

Fernandez’s political foes have a reason to celebrate. Sergio Massa, a former chief of staff for Fernandez turned foe, won the congressional seat for the province of Buenos Aires, beating the ruling party candidate, Martin Insaurralde, by almost 12 percentage points.

Winning the country’s most-populous province -- home to 39 percent of Argentines -- makes the right-of-center Massa a contender for the 2015 presidential elections. Argentina’s daily Clarin, a newspaper critical of Fernandez, led its day-after coverage with the headline: “Massa swept and opens a new political phase.” The paper described his win as “an especially tough blow” for Fernandez. The president’s party also did poorly in Argentina’s three other top provinces: Cordoba, Santa Fe and Mendoza.

Joaquin Morales Sola, a columnist for La Nacion newspaper summed up the anti-Fernandez mood: “The broad defeat of the presidential party was as spectacular as the victory of Cristina” Fernandez during her 2011 re-election.

Still, the nationwide results told a more nuanced story. Fernandez’s coalition took a third of the nationwide vote and managed to win a majority of seats in both houses of Congress. Her allies even increased their presence in the lower house to 130 seats out of 257 spots, or 50.6 percent. Opponents such as Massa who, like the president, is still considered a Peronist -- a follower of the populist ideology of 1940s strongman Juan Domingo Peron -- took 37 seats. Such numbers don’t add up to a resounding defeat for Fernandez.

The true blow to the president and her allies was their failure to secure a two-thirds majority in Congress. Lacking such strength means Cristinistas, as the president’s supporters are known, won't have the power to pass a constitutional reform that allows Fernandez a third term. This puts a 2015 end date on Fernandez’s mandate and paves the way for a more business-friendly leader like Massa to fill the spot. As Leopoldo Castillo, a Venezuelan television personality, put it in a tweet: “The hegemonic project of Cristina in Argentina died today. That’s what’s important from today’s election.”

These are no doubt tough times for Fernandez’s supporters. For starters, the president is on a 30-day medical leave and she hasn’t been seen in public since surgery on Oct. 8 to remove a blood clot near her brain. This has fed talk that she may never resume her duties. Plus, she didn't deliver a message to her supporters after the election and left it to her close allies to spin the results.

The governor of Buenos Aires, Daniel Scioli, a member of Fernandez’s party, downplayed the setback in remarks to radio station La Red: He warned “not to derive future political speculation based on this election” and said the government would “guard what it has to guard, improve what it has to improve and fix what it has to fix.”

Meanwhile Clarin pushed triumphalist coverage to a new level when it ran a poll asking: “What was the best electoral kiss?” right over photos of Massa kissing his wife and Insaurralde locking lips with his fashion model girlfriend, Jessica Cirio. As of early today, 86 percent of the 9,789 votes registered favored Massa.

The failure by either side of Argentina’s political spectrum to come to terms with reality is a bad sign. For Cristinistas it means they won’t yet accept that governing a country requires more than promoting a popular political figure with generous government pockets. Or as La Nacion’s editorial noted: “The message of the ballot box also talks about a citizenry that wants to say enough to an authoritarian mandate and a rhetoric of revenge.”

Opposition politicians in turn have yet to accept that taking Argentina beyond Fernandez and her policies may be harder than expected. Fernandez has two more years in office left and has the power to pass laws by decree, sidestepping Congress altogether. That gives Fernandez plenty of time to further distort the economy and to find a popular, like-minded heir.

It is telling that the up-and-coming politicians the opposition applauds come from Fernandez’s own Peronist ranks. Luis Gregorich, a La Nacion columnist, offered the right perspective in his piece titled “An alternative to the eternal Peronist return”: “As long as stinginess and lack of imagination dominate the opposition in Argentina, we will remain tied to the Peronist treadmill, with old or new colors.”

(Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for the World View blog. Follow him on Twitter. E-mail him at rgallegos5@bloomberg.net.)