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Polls under way as Argentina's President Kirchner faces tough congress test

Voting has begun in Argentina, with portions of both houses of the country's legislature at stake. The signs appear ominous for President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, whose popularity is said to be at an all-time low.

Half the seats in Argentina's lower house of congress were at stake as voting opened on Sunday, as well as a third of the seats in the Senate.

Kirchner is expected to lose some of her congressional power as a result of the election, which comes at a time of spiraling inflation and currency weakness.

Figures have suggested that Kirchner will lose seats in both houses, making it unlikely that she will obtain the necessary supermajority to change the constitution and run for a third term as president.

The showing for was expected to be particularly poor following midterm primaries across Argentina in August. Kirchner's ruling Front for Victory received just 26.3 percent of the votes and fared particularly badly in Argentina's most populous provinces, including the capital Buenos Aires.

More than 30 million voters were eligible to cast ballots on Sunday.

The elections have been described as the beginning of the end for Kirchner, and the start of a contest to replace her. Among the favorites is Kirchner's former chief of staff, Sergio Massa.

The 41-year-old has split with Kirchner to form a splinter Peronist party.

Spate of health problems

Along with the divided left- and right-wing opposition parties, Massa is expected to be one of the beneficiaries of Kirchner's political woes.

The 60-year-old Kirchner has been isolated in the run-up to the election, recovering from brain surgery throughout the election campaign. That operation was just the latest in a series of health problems, including low blood pressure and a thyroid tumor.

Peronism, according to its supporters, represents a "third way" ideology: rejecting the extremes of capitalism and communism and promising social justice and economic independence. It has its roots in the political movement of former President Juan Domingo Peron and his second wife, Evita Peron. Opponents describe Peronism as a totalitarian ideology.

rc/mkg (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)