Buenos Aires (AFP) - Argentines voted Sunday in presidential primaries seen as an early indicator of who is best positioned to succeed President Cristina Kirchner later this year.
All 32 million eligible voters are required to cast ballots in one of an array of competing party primaries that will shape the political landscape ahead of the October 25 presidential elections.
The peculiarly Argentine process is less about parties picking candidates than showing which candidates can garner enough votes to become Argentina's next leader.
Polls show three candidates leading a field of 15 hopefuls: the ruling center-left party's Daniel Scioli, conservative Mauricio Macri and Sergio Massa, a dissident from Kirchner's political movement.
Scioli, the governor of Buenos Aires province, is the only candidate for Kirchner's Front for Victory (FPV).
His two top competitors are facing largely symbolic challenges within their own parties.
Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires, is nearly guaranteed to win the nomination for the Let's Change coalition.
The third-place candidate, Massa -- a center-right congressman -- is likewise a virtual shoo-in for his coalition, United for a New Alternative (UNA).
The real test will be to see how many votes each contender gets, and whether Scioli, 58, has enough support to avoid a run-off.
The latest opinion polls give Scioli around 35 percent of the vote. Macri has about 25 percent, while Massa has about 15 percent.
But pundits speculate that Macri, 56, could win a run-off on November 22 by capturing Massa's voters.
Early exit polls Sunday showed Scioli faring best, edging out Macri, followed by Massa, local television reported.
- End of Kirchner era -
No matter who wins or loses, the primaries mark the beginning of the end of the 12-year Kirchner dynasty -- eight under Cristina and four under her late husband, Nestor.
Kirchner is entering the final stretch of her presidency with more than 50 percent support, despite a laundry list of woes in Latin America's third-largest economy that includes a sliding currency and a messy legal battle over defaulted debt from the country's 2001 economic crisis.
Barred from running again by term limits, the 62-year-old is not standing for any post.
Argentine newspapers noted the deep uncertainty about the future as the polls opened.
The economy has been alternating between stagnation and weak growth. Unemployment is a manageable 7.1 percent, but inflation is running at 20 percent.
"Undoubtedly the markets' biggest 'friend' is Macri, and the candidate closest to the state is Scioli. But both agree on the need for investment," pollster Ricardo Rouvier told AFP.
The polls opened across the country at 8:00 am (1100 GMT), with many areas battered by stormy weather. They closed at 2100 GMT. First results are expected in the early hours of Monday.
Voters will also be electing Argentine members of a regional parliamentary group, Parlasur, and candidates for gubernatorial and other local elected offices.
Argentina introduced primaries in 2009 in a bid to make candidate selection more democratic and revitalize a party system gutted by the cataclysmic fallout of the economic crisis, when the country churned through five presidents in two weeks.
But despite the new system, parties have largely continued to pick their candidates as they always have: through opaque internal processes in which the general public plays no part.
The primaries are also designed to winnow out hopeless also-rans. Parties must attract at least 1.5 percent of primary voters to be eligible for the general election.