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ARGENTINA | 07-11-2023 17:39

Presidential debate could be decisive for run-off race, analysts say

Experts and analysts are split on the impact of Milei’s deal with Macri on his campaign, but all agree that the presidential debate could help swing the race for either candidate.

On November 19, Argentines will vote in a second round run-off that will finally anoint the next president. 

While ruling coalition candidate, Economy Minister Sergio Massa, arrives with his space in order politically speaking, the economy remains his biggest weakness. Libertarian lawmaker Javier Milei, whose campaign has been in disarray in the last stretch, faces the challenge of capturing and interpreting the mood of change that consultancies and pollsters have been recording for at least two years. 

With pollsters saying the race remains up for grabs, all the analysts and consultancy firms interviewed for this article agree on one point: the presidential debate scheduled for this Sunday, November 12, could be decisive for both candidates. They also concur that Massa’s experience and professionalism could be a major advantage. 

Political analyst Lucas Romero, from the Synopsis consultancy firm said “the debate will be important for Massa to show Milei’s defects.” 

“Based on what is known about discussions on the debate format, the ruling coalition [candidate] will go for that. Unión por la Patria’s team sought to expand all the margins of the debate, for Massa, who is a professional, to make use,” he added.

According to Romero, it will be key for both to show “arguments and conceptual solidity.” He explained that participating in a presidential debate “is not like being a panellist on TV, handling only topics you know about.” Therefore, Milei must calibrate his discourse so as not to sound “academic” and distance himself from voters.

Carlos Fara, from Carlos Fara y Asociados, said that “in theory, in the debate Massa would have the edge.” He further assessed that “being in the ‘wide middle’ comes naturally” to the Unión por la Patria candidate, enabling his call to centrist voters. To Fara, the key to the election will be winning the moderate vote.

“The debate might be crucial. Milei won’t have any notes or cheat sheets, which to a large extent anchored him to a calmer position in past debates. Without being able to read, he may struggle to be disciplined and stick to a script,” analysed political consultant Lucio Guberman. 

Guberman, an expert in political communication who teaches at the National University of Rosario,  added that the pressure on Milei “will be very demanding” and debates are “more watched than listened to.”

The sense of disarray that surrounds La Libertad Avanza, following the public backing of Milei’s bid by opposition leaders Mauricio Macri and Patricia Bullrich, could also play to Massa’s advantage.

Fara, however, believes the former president’s play is positive for the libertarian. “I think it’s positive that Macri has joined the campaign. It generates volume and amplifies, beyond internal noise,” he considered. “It’s a decision with risks and costs.”

“On the other hand, it poses the risk that Macri has a very negative image – just like Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – and the chance that Massa will turn the election into a referendum on fears about Milei and Macri’s administration,” said the expert, who said the libertarian’s image risk “being diluted.”

According to Romero, “Macri has a clear intention of transferring the opposition vote from [Patricia] Bullrich to Milei. His priority is the ruling coalition’s defeat.”

He continued: “The general election placed a ceiling on Milei. Macri’s bet is a win-win situation from his perspective. If it helps him win, he becomes influential. If Milei doesn’t win, he will say that ‘the ideas of freedom’ are supported by a large percentage.”

Conversely, for Guberman, the addition of “Macri doesn’t help Milei,” with the former president eclipsing the libertarian’s appeal as something “different.”

“Which votes does Macri move which are not [already] contained in [the] anti-Peronism [voting bloc]?” he asked.

The search for a new answer to Argentina’s economic woes is the point that unites the analysts and their forecasts. All agree that society is seeking “change” but that the fragmentation of the available options is what made it possible for Massa to emerge in first place in the October 22 election and to have a shot in the second round.

At the same time, Milei’s “hardline” discourse has gained him a loyal 30 percent of the electorate, a solid bloc but one that is insufficient to win an election. Massa, meanwhile, has preferred to offer a “narrative for the future” and thus remove any discussion about the present, whether it be inflation, the exchange rate, fuel shortages or any other problems related to his tenure as economy minister.

With the polls failing to anoint a favourite ahead of the November 19 vote, this Sunday’s debate could help swing the race for either candidate.

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Pablo Varela

Pablo Varela

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