We are now less than one year away from the next presidential election. While it seems like things have gone back to normal, recent experience reminds us that the velocity with which unexpected events occur in Argentina means it is impossible to make a calculated guess as to what will happen. The consensus view, though, is that President Mauricio Macri will secure re-election, competing against Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who will use the votes of her hardcore supports to buy some sort of immunity against encroaching corruption accusations. Hopeful that the former president will run, Macri and his senior political strategists — Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña and Ecuadorean advisor Jaime Durán Barba — are once again betting on the polarisation (la grieta) of the electorate and a fragmented Peronism. But problems are brewing, both internally and externally, which have the potential to derail Macri’s ambitions.
Cambiemos (Let’s Change), the ruling coalition controlled by Macri’s PRO party, is on the verge of securing an important legislative victory. Last week, after another embarrassing day of street battles outside Congress, the Chamber of Deputies approved the 2019 Budget, with the tacit support of certain Peronist factions. While the Kirchneristas waged lonesome war against the police in the streets, and their deputies unsuccessfully attempted to disrupt the session, a group of four politica lly-minded members of Macri’s coalition felt relieved after months of alliance-building paid off. Led by Emilio Monzó, the speaker of the Chamber and fourth in the line of succession for the presidency, the group — which also includes Interior Minister Rogelio Frigerio, his right-hand man Sebastián Garcia de Luca, and deputy caucus leader Nicholas Massot — garnered the support of 11 Peronist governors who put their deputies to play, and secured quorum from another three anti-Macri governors who abstained. The bill is expected to pass through the Senate over the next few weeks, courtesy of an uncomfortable alliance with Peronist bloc leader Miguel Ángel Pichetto.
While it has become a cliché to criticise the Macri administration for their “lack of political will,” due to the fact that the inner group responsible for decisionmaking shuns negotiations even with their own allies, nothing could be more representative of that than the departure of Monzó next year. This is the man credited with giving Cambiemos a nationwide structure that allowed Macri’s 2015 election, having both brokered a deal with the Radical Civic Union (UCR) and convinced María Eugenia Vidal to run for the governorship of the Buenos Aires Province. With a past in Peronist administrations, he was also the one who attempted to bring Renewal Front leader Sergio Massa into the coalition, yet Macri drew a line in the sand with Cristina’s former Cabinet Chief. Monzó confirmed he will not run for office next year and some speculate he will join the ranks of his former party. This is another self-inflicted wound for Macri, as all Monzó wanted was greater influence, but the president and Peña always shoved him aside. Thus, they lose their main negotiator with the opposition, knowing they most probably will once again be the first minority after 2019.
Which brings us back to Vidal, one of the most hindered by the 2019 Budget. The Buenos Aires province governor runs the largest and most decimated province in Argentina, one that was left ravaged by Daniel Scioli. Macri’s political wunderkind gave up on her request for a 19-billion-peso payment owed by the federal government in order to allow Cambiemos to secure a legislative victory. Not only has Vidal shown her frustration internally at being forced to run the most populous province – the one which contributes the most to the tax authorities, with the lowest proportional disbursements from the Casa Rosada – but she and City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta have also privately criticised Peña, who is Macri’s protégé, something unthought of before the string of mistakes caused by the Cabinet Chief (and the president). Surveys put Vidal as the highest-polling politician in the country and many have speculated that she could take Macri’s place next year if re-election was in danger, something she has publicly denied. Vidal has continued to show signs of loyalty to the man who positioned her as Argentina’s political star, but she will need concrete gestures from the Casa Rosada in order to secure harmony within PRO.
Every poll continues to show that no-one in the Peronist opposition would stand a chance against Cristina, meaning the grieta strategy could do the trick for Macri. Yet, that doesn’t take into account the possibility that a politician to the right of the president could hold the keys to his victory in an almost guaranteed run-off. As I mentioned last week, the number of undecided voters remains high, close to 10 percent. If an outsider that could appeal both to non-Kirchnerite Peronists and those disillusioned with Macri who could never vote for a Peronist for ideological reasons secured a big chunk of those votes, then Cambiemos would be forced to negotiate their victory. A growing wave of economic liberals could support someone like economist José Luis Espert, who has gained celebrity-status due to his colourful descriptions of the past and present macroeconomic disaster on national TV. He has already announced his candidacy. Another possibility is Roberto Lavagna, Néstor Kirchner’s first economy minister and a former presidential candidate that is well respected by Peronistas and Radicales.
To the aforementioned risks one could add a new flare up of the economy, which could result from an external shock, a bad crop, or another bout of hyper-devaluation. The deepest recession since the 2001-2 crisis has already been rough on the middle class and the private sector, and it will get tougher in the short-term, even if the victory of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s presidential elections pleased the market, helping Argentina as well. For now, Macri can count on society being distracted by the coming final of the Copa Libertadores between River Plate and Boca Juniors, and on Donald Trump’s antics in the coming G20 at the end of this month.
Soon enough, though, the 2019 campaign is set to begin.