AFP - The ruling coalition of Argentine President Cristina Kirchner was dealt a blow in mid-term elections, losing control of the country's Congress and suffering defeat in five key provinces.
Even the president's husband Nestor Kirchner, himself a former head of state, lost his race in Buenos Aires province, where he was seeking a seat in the Chamber of Deputies.
"Argentine society has sent the government a message," commented political analyst Rosendo Fraga after the release of official results from Sunday's balloting. "It has to change course."
With from 75 percent to 95 percent of the ballots counted, a coalition supported by the president and her husband lost four seats in the Senate and with them control of the 72-member upper house of parliament.
For with the 36 Senate seats still under their control, the pro-government Front for Victory is one short of a controlling majority.
"We have now become the main opposition force," boasted opposition leader Ricardo Alfoncin, who won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, which also went to the opposition.
Nestor Kirchner tasted defeat in his bid for a seat in Buenos Aires, supported by the governor and dozens of mayors.
"We have lost by one and a half or two points and we have no problem recognizing it," he conceded late Sunday.
It was an alliance of dissident Peronists including wealthy entrepreneur Francisco de Narvaez, as well as Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, who thwarted Nestor Kirchner's bid.
De Narvaez represents the return within the Peronist Party of neoliberal ideas of former president Carlos Menem.
The pro-government coalition also suffered heavy losses in the capital as well as the provinces of Buenos Aires, Santa Fe, Cordoba and Mendoza, the returns showed.
Presidential allies lost even in the southern province of Santa Cruz, where the Kirchners began their political careers.
Often sporting masks to protect against the influenza A(H1N1) flu virus that has killed 26 people in the country, Argentines voted Sunday for half of the 247 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and a third of 72 Senate seats.
The opposition represents about 70 percent of the electorate, with some 30 percent for the Peronist Party.
But the opposition is split between right-leaning Peronists who have distanced themselves from the Kirchners, Social Democrats, Socialists and minority and leftist parties.
It was Nestor Kirchner, as the head of the ruling Peronist Party, who shepherded the nation through its recovery from the 2001 financial crisis.
Renowned for overturning amnesty laws for military officers accused of torture and assassinations during the country's 1976-1983 "dirty war."
But the team now led by his wife, President Cristina Kirchner, has failed to live up to promises to reduce poverty and is losing steam.
Argentina, a nation of 40 million, once prided itself on having more in common with Europe than many of its troubled Latin American neighbors.
But now its problems include drug use in the slums, millions living in poverty and growing insecurity.
Agricultural workers have also been angered by the government's decision to hike export taxes by 25 percent on soy beans, one of the country's top exports.
In recent months, the president's popularity has dropped from 55 percent to less than 30 percent.
Nestor Kirchner governed Argentina from 2003 to 2007, with high world prices for Argentine exports leading the economy to nine percent annual growth and boosting his popularity and that of his wife, Cristina, who took over in 2007.
Kirchner's husband recently warned skeptical voters of the risk of a return to the economic crisis of 2001, the worst in the country's history.
"It's a choice between a return to the past and the consolidation of a national project," he said.