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Drivers in Argentina wait in long lines to fill up the tanks as presidential election looms

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Long lines formed at gas stations throughout Argentina on Monday as surging demand outstripped supply, becoming a campaign issue just weeks ahead of the second round of the country’s presidential race.

Economy Minister Sergio Massa, one of the two remaining presidential candidates, blamed oil companies for a lack of supply in the South American country and threatened to prohibit their exports if the situation failed to normalize immediately. His challenger, right-wing populist Javier Milei, blamed the leftist policies of the current government for the shortage.

The country’s oil companies, meanwhile, blamed the shortfall on a serious of unrelated events in recent days, but sought to head off any continued hoarding or panic buying by reassuring the public that their capacity to produce was “robust.”

Carlos Pinto, a chauffeur, said he had been waiting on line forever at a gas station in Buenos Aires on Monday

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“We wait for hours to fill up,” Pinto complained. “It’s terrible for those of us who work in our cars.”

There was an uptick in demand even before the country’s first round of the presidential election on Oct. 22, when Massa received 37% of the vote, but not enough to avoid a Nov. 19 runoff against Milei, who won 30%.

Argentines are enduring an annual inflation rate of almost 140% and the prospect of additional uncertainty and price rises as a result of the election prompted many residents to rush to stock up on goods ahead of the first round of the vote. Lines at gas stations began to form late last week and continued through the weekend.

Massa accused oil companies of holding onto stock amid speculation there would be an increase in prices surrounding the election, and said he would move to shut down crude oil exports if the situation was not normalized by Tuesday night.

The local price of gas at the pump is tightly controlled by the government and is lower than what companies can receive in the international market.

“When they prefer to export rather than supply the local market, we have the responsibility to stand firm,” Massa said in a local television interview Monday.

Milei, meanwhile, said the shortages were a result of the government’s price controls. “Shortages and inflation are the direct consequences of the model defended by this government of criminals, with Minister Massa at the helm,” Milei wrote on social media.

Oil companies said in a joint news release Monday that they had implemented "a plan of action to strengthen full supply in the service station network and restore the operational stock levels of the entire chain until returning to normalcy.” The plan, which was agreed to with government authorities, included a boost in imports.

Over the weekend the companies said they had been pushed to their limits of capacity partly because of a boost in demand due to a long weekend and increased farming activity. They also said that some refiners were affected by planned maintenance operations that reduced capacity.

But the statement by the country’s main oil refiners, led by state-controlled YPF, also said that the country’s “infrastructure for the production and supply of fuels is robust.” And on Monday they said that “the situation is returning to normal.”

Argentina normally imports about 20% of the refined fuel that is used domestically.

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AP video journalist Cristian Kovadloff contributed to this report.