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Argentina's President Mauricio Macri speaks to journalists after casting his vote in Buenos Aires, Argentina October 22, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci(reuters_tickers)
By Hugh Bronstein and Cassandra Garrison
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Candidates allied with Argentine President Mauricio Macri enjoyed sweeping victories in Sunday's mid-term election, strengthening his position in Congress while dimming prospects for a political comeback by his predecessor Cristina Fernandez.
A free-spending populist who nearly bankrupted the country during her 2007-2015 rule, Fernandez came in a distant second in her race for the Senate representing Buenos Aires, Argentina's most populous province.
With 98 percent of ballots counted by the interior ministry, Macri's former education minister, Esteban Bullrich, had 41.34 percent versus 37.27 percent for Fernandez in the province that is home to nearly 40 percent of Argentine voters.
Macri's "Cambiemos" or "Let's Change" coalition won the top five population centers of Buenos Aires City, and Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Santa Fe and Mendoza provinces. No single party had won all five in a mid-term vote since 1985.
"Today the change elected in 2015 has been consolidated," Vice President Gabriela Michetti told voters.
The election results, largely in line with pre-vote opinion polls, robbed the opposition of the two-thirds majority needed to block presidential vetoes, said Ignacio Labaqui, a local analyst with New York-based consultancy Medley Global Advisors.
"This is a significant boost for the Macri administration, particularly because of the defeat of Cristina in Buenos Aires province," Labaqui said.
Fernandez's second-place showing still grants her one of the province's three Senate seats under Argentina's list system. One third of the Senate and half of the house were elected, and Macri's coalition will not have a majority.
The private sector has worried about a political resurgence by Fernandez, who is loved by millions of low-income Argentines helped by generous social spending during her administrations.
Fernandez thanked voters at her campaign headquarters and said her Citizen's Unity party would remain a firm opposition to Macri's economic model.
Critics say Fernandez's growth-at-all-costs policies stoked inflation and distorted the economy through heavy-handed currency controls.
She has been further isolated politically by graft accusations. Fernandez, who as a senator will have immunity from arrest but not from trial, says there may have been corruption in her government but denies personal wrongdoing.
Bullrich and Fernandez were tied in a non-binding primary in August but Bullrich pulled ahead in polls soon after, helped by a burst of economic growth as Fernandez failed to unify the Peronist opposition behind her.
"People are more confident in the future, the economy, in making investments. They are tired of corruption and populism," said Cecilia de Francesca, a 50-year-old writer who was celebrating at the Cambiemos campaign headquarters.
Argentina's Merval stock index and its peso currency have strengthened on bets Fernandez would not get enough support to launch a serious bid for the presidency in 2019.
Investors, particularly in Argentina's vast agriculture and budding shale oil sectors, have said they want to see Macri push through labour and tax reforms aimed at lowering business costs in Latin America's third-biggest economy.
(Additional reporting by Caroline Stauffer, Nicolas Misculin and Maximiliano Rizzi; Editing by Mary Milliken, Peter Cooney and Paul Tait)