A great share of this year’s electoral debate will be about what to debate. Beyond all its partitions, which are arguably insurmountable at this point, the opposition has one thing in common: the economy is their only issue, and more specifically, President Mauricio Macri’s inability to make the country’s economy work in a reasonable way.
But this clarity, surrounded by an endless palaver about who will be the main contender, might also be the source of an own goal leading towards defeat. Targeting the government’s economic ills is a proxy for a problem that remains unresolved within the opposition: what future are they promising the country?
Macri already concedes, without too many euphemisms, that his economic programme has failed, although he obviously attributes it to a miscalculation of the alleged burden he received from his predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
But the president has an advantage: he (or so he says) has a plan. And plans look to the future. The government is telling Argentines: Oops, we got it wrong, but our problems are not our fault. We have got it right now, and there’ll be results in the future. Trust us. Again.
This is, of course, only a reactive talkingpoint by the government, something candidates will resort to on demand or when coming under pressure from a public that has grown, with good reason, sensitive to the state of its pockets and credit card bill. Proactively, instead, government candidates and talking heads will push other issues, which they hope will be able to present a vision that goes beyond just making ends meet. Public security, criminal legislation, anti-corruption policies, counter-narcotics operations, immigration and the like, these are all part of a combo that the government’s spin doctors place under the umbrella of the “cultural change” Argentina supposedly needs (although a less partisan observer might perceive it simply as the local brand of the now fashionable conservative populism à la Bolsonaro).
In order to push this, the Macri team is setting up a carefully crafted division of electoral labour, with at least three women at the forefront of its efforts. The announcement this week by Governor María Eugenia Vidal that elections in Buenos Aires province will not be separated from the presidential race is part of that strategy. Buenos Aires is home to more than a third of Argentina’s voters, and has never since 1983 voted separately from the national elections. The real news is that Buenos Aires City will also vote for its new mayor in October 27 – and this will be the first time the capital does not hold separate elections since it gained autonomy in 1996.
Over the past 10 days, ever since they came back from their respective holidays, Macri and Vidal have appeared together at three public events in the country’s most populous province. The governor will be omnipresent, alongside the president on the campaign trail and, in the coming weeks and months, you can expect her to also cross the borders of the province to endorse Cambiemos (Let’s Change) ruling coalition candidates elsewhere. All polls show consistently that she enjoys the best approval ratings among Argentine politicians, a reputation that does not correlate directly with concrete results from her administration but that rather emerge from the solid and credible public persona she has built up over the years.
The next key piece in Macri’s division of labour is Elisa Carrió, the unceremonious national deputy whose candid moral language attracts a large chunk of Cambiemos’ middle-class, urban-dwelling voters. Carrió said this week that she would campaign for Macri’s reelection, even after having disagreed with him and government policies on several occasions over the last three years.
To Macri’s voters, Carrió is the person that keeps certain shady business establishment figures in the government’s entourage in check. In the 2017 midterm elections, half of the people in the City voted for her. This week, Carrió voiced many of her voters’ frustration at the blackouts hitting the city amid scorching temperatures, chiding power companies Edenor and Edesur for “not even taking people’s calls.” Electricity rates went up 26 percent yesterday, in the first of a series of hikes that will total 55 percent by August.
A third woman, Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, will play an influential role in Macri’s electoral team. Riding on a wave of hard-line anti-crime sentiment, Bullrich has risen to become an unexpected star in the Cabinet and she now stands a good change of becoming Macri’s running-mate. “I am up to any challenge,” the all-terrain Bullrich has said. Carrió does not always agree with Bullrich’s hard-line stance. Macri doesn’t mind.
All this stands a chance, of course, if a handful of men running the economy can hold the country’s battered ship stable through October. If they don’t, the opposition’s single-issue engine will make perfect sense again. Place your bets.