In a surprising turn of events in Argentina’s 2019 election cycle, the Frente de Todos coalition swept the Simultaneous and Mandatory Open Primaries (PASO in Spanish), with candidates Alberto Fernández and running-mate and former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner obtaining 47.66 percent of the national vote. The Peronist party coalition also collected 49.34 percent of intended votes for the Buenos Aires governorship, 117 of 257 projected seats in the House of Representatives, and 36 out of 72 spots in the Senate.
Argentina’s primary election measures voter intention, helping larger parties refine campaign messages and consolidate alliances with smaller political actors, if they need to. The 15-point difference (3.7 million-votes) between President Mauricio Macri’s Cambiemos coalition and the Fernández-Fernández ticket nearly guarantees the return to power of the Peronist party in the upcoming October election. The PASO’s results also reveal the country’s frustration with President Macri’s economic policies and the historic resilience of the Peronist party that united and rebranded around candidate Alberto Fernández.
An economic crisis hits Argentina… again
Argentina has a long history of mass economic booms followed by tragic busts that can destabilize the country’s socio-political environment. Unlike its Latin American counterparts (Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Uruguay) that have established stable macroeconomic regimes, Argentina’s ruling class seems to prefer short-term, politically easy policies that do not secure the value of the Argentine peso in the long term, but do secure short-term popularity. Either pegging the value of its currency to the U.S. dollar, artificially controlling the supply and domestic value of U.S. tender, or subsidizing public services (water, electricity, fuel) at the cost of increased inflation, the country’s political leaders do not seem to learn from previous economic collapses. This time is no exception.
After the 2000’s crash, Argentina’s politicians rallied public support around populist policies that nationalized and protected domestic industry, but did not resolve the country’s systemic macro-economic problems. Furthermore, Argentina’s historic default on debt obligations has sowed distrust in international creditors or private sector investors. Domestically, the social trauma of losing purchasing power over night—due to the collapse of the peso—informally dollarized the economy. Today, the Argentine middle class does not trust the banking sector and saves U.S. hard currency for a rainy day. Due to the high fluctuation in the value of the Argentine peso, businesses set prices according to their dollarized costs. As a result, the rising value of the U.S. dollar inversely affects inflation rates, directly affecting President’ Macri’s re-election prospects.
Moreover, the 2000 economic crisis splintered the power of traditional political parties and further polarized Argentine society. As a result, instead of voting in favor of a political platform with a clear ideology and plan for the future of the country, Argentine citizens use the ballot box to vote against opposing candidates and viewpoints. Back in 2015, candidate Mauricio Macri won the Presidency using a pro-democracy message that urged citizens to vote against Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s candidate Daniel Scioli as punishment for a weak economy, an increasingly authoritarian governing style, and emerging corruption scandals involving most of her cabinet.
Although President, Macri’s administration actively worked with Peronist counter parts to govern the country. He also maintained a polarizing rhetoric to divide the Peronist party around internal differences with Ms. Kirchner and her supporters. The strategy worked again in the 2017 mid-term elections, when the Cambiemos coalition expanded its power in Congress. However, President Macri’s economic reforms failed to attract much-needed foreign investment and a steady influx of U.S. dollars.
October elections’ outlook
Although Cambiemos runs a sophisticated big-data campaign targeting messages at Argentina’s middle class, the approach through social media only reaches a core group of hyperactive followers. The strategy does not engage with dissenting voices that disagree with the President. Macri’s closest advisers have also failed to fully explain the administration’s economic decisions or recommend social policies to mitigate their impact on average citizens. For example, President Macri did not clearly explain drastic cuts to previously subsidized public services. The administration did not respond until there was widespread media coverage of citizens complaining about the effect of these policies in their pockets. Similarly, the government’s negotiations with the (in Argentina, much-demonized) International Monetary Fund (IMF) behind closed doors added to the politically toxic environment.
On the Peronist side, the group is still divided between Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s followers and those that support more moderate points of view. However, as a close ally—but formerly a public critic of President Kirchner—Alberto Fernández managed to rebrand himself as a moderate that can address socioeconomic pains and move the country forward. Candidate Fernández is maintaining a delicate balance between separating himself from his Vice-Presidential running mate, Ms. Kirchner, without alienating her supporters who are part of the militant base of the Peronist party. The campaign messages also rely on polarizing voters to urge them to vote against Macri’s Cambiemos coalition. The PASO results seem to show that the Peronist re-branding strategy is working.
But although a polarizing strategy to defeat political opponents may work well for campaigns, it does not function as a governing strategy. Citizens will always hold leaders accountable at the ballot box. With two months left until the first round of elections, there are still many questions unanswered and a high level of uncertainty around the economic future of the country. In a recent press conference, President Macri offered a mea culpa and announced new economic adjustments to alleviate the daily needs of citizens. Cambiemos candidates also promise to do more listening. But will the economic measures and messaging be enough to sway voters in October? It is likely they may get additional voter turnout but probably not enough to stay in power for the next four years.
For the Peronist coalition, Alberto Fernández will also have to tread a fine line quietly coordinating messaging with the current government to stabilize the value of the peso, while also avoiding alienating Cristina Kirchner’s emboldened supporters. With all the uncertainty ahead, the upcoming Presidential elections will make for an exciting telenovela that will determine whether Argentina finally breaks its historic macro-economic curse, establishing a more stable political system with leaders that plan beyond their terms in office.
Patricio Provitina is a global affairs and Latin America expert. Follow him on Twitter @pprovitina. The views expressed here are the authors and do not reflect those of any current or former employer.