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ARGENTINA | 17-11-2023 00:57

Haunted by inflation, Sergio Massa seeks presidency

A wily and seasoned politician, Sergio Massa confounded pollsters by winning the most votes in a first-round election. Can he convince voters, despite his performance as economy minister?

Sergio Massa is charismatic, cool-headed, and statesmanlike: characteristics he hopes will convince Argentines to elect him president despite his performance as economy minister at a time when inflation stands at 143 percent.

A wily and seasoned politician, Massa confounded pollsters by winning the most votes in a first-round election, coming in seven points ahead of his main rival Javier Milei.

Now the two men are neck and neck, and Massa has worked hard to present himself as the polar opposite of his fiery competitor, a libertarian who has vowed to dollarise the economy and shut down the central bank.

The 53-year-old lawyer has called for a unity government and vowed to appoint a finance minister and corruption chief from the opposition if victorious.

Massa was chosen as the best option to run for the presidency for the centre-left Peronist ruling coalition, which has grown deeply unpopular.

He has distanced himself from President Alberto Fernández, who currently has an almost 80 percent disapproval rating, according to an Atlas Intel poll, and Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (63 percent disapproval), who was last year convicted of fraud.

Both have vanished from the public eye.

"If you look at his posters on the streets, it's just like a white poster with his face and no-one else. They're constantly talking about a new slate. You know, there's a new era starting if Massa is elected," said political analyst Ana Iparraguirre.

Margarita Pérez, 69, in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of the capital is one of many undecided voters, but said she was "leaning towards Massa."

"I know I am going to vote on Sunday, but I don't know for whom. Milei scares me."

 

'Absolutely unbelievable'

Analysts say that even though it is entirely feasible, if Massa does win, given the state of the economy, it would go down in history.

"It would be a political science dream. Someone's doctorate would be based on this," said Nicolás Saldias, a senior analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit.

"Because how do you win an election in a situation of 140 percent inflation and rising poverty? It would just be absolutely unbelievable, right? [But] it's very possible that he could win."

Political analyst Virginia Oliveros, speaking during an online webinar on the election, said the country would "enter into the Guinness Book" of World Records if Massa pulled off a victory.

The son of Italian immigrants Massa got into politics at 17, and studied law and economics before becoming a regional lawmaker at only 28.

In 2008 and 2009, he was chief of staff to then-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

The two had a bitter falling out, and Massa ran for president in 2015 against the Peronists, who he slammed as "corrupt."

Then they reconciled again in a coalition for 2019 elections won by President Alberto Fernández with Fernández de Kirchner as his vice-president.

 

'Incredibly intelligent' 

Massa's knack for flip-flopping loyalties has earned him the moniker "pancake" in the country.

"I think he is the most skilful politician in Argentina," said analyst Carlos Gervasoni of the Torcuato Di Tella University, adding he was "incredibly intelligent" and "unscrupulous."

In July last year, Massa was named "super minister" of a portfolio bringing together the Economy, Productive Development, and Agriculture ministries in a bid to calm the country's economic crisis – after two of his predecessors stepped down in a matter of weeks.

The minister managed to renegotiate the terms of a US$44-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, but failed to halt soaring inflation.

"Even if he doesn't have a plan, he constantly improvises... he always conveys the idea that he is in control of the situation and that he will find a way out," said Diego Genoud, Massa's unauthorised biographer. 

He "has the ability to always be well-placed and sought after in the halls of power," said Genoud.

Gervasoni, the analyst, said Massa has been "openly and shamelessly using the state apparatus" to help his electoral chances.

This includes using ads to warn that transport prices would increase under Milei as well as slashing taxes and granting cash payouts to millions.

Massa is married with two children.

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by Fran Blandy & Martín Raschinsky, AFP

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