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OP-ED | 06-08-2023 19:09

The price of victory

The two main coalitions in this election are very differently poised with a battered Peronist government already coming up with its answer for better or for worse.

That famous quote: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” would be echoed by almost everybody in sports, a handful of purists and idealists aside – how does it apply to the world of politics and more particularly to this year’s elections in Argentina, now entering their decisive stages as from next weekend with the PASO primaries?

Here there are multiple ethical issues about fair play, the use of fake news, etc. boiling down to the core question of whether the end justifies the means but in politics it is rather more complex than that – politicians also need to ask themselves whether the means employed serve to achieve the ends beyond the bottom line of electoral victory.

Here the two main coalitions in this election are very differently poised with a battered Peronist government already coming up with its answer for better or for worse whereas the interplay between ends and means remains very much an open question for the Juntos por el Cambio opposition coalition.

Starting with the ruling Frente de Todos aka Unión por la Patria coalition, their official presidential candidate is Economy Minister Sergio Massa with social activist Juan Grabois as his internal rival to stop their left wing from straying. Massa could be most benevolently termed a pragmatist and is more usually defined as an opportunist but in no way is he an incarnation of Kirchnerite dogmas clearly sacrificed on the altar of electoral victory. Here the hope of a government whose support might well be closer to a quarter than a third of the electorate is that should Massa reach the November runoff against an advocate of extreme austerity, he could receive the grudging support of the middle ground (it might be said in passing that there is no middle ground about the middle ground in Argentine politics – it is either tremendously overrated or completely underestimated).

Turning to Juntos por el Cambio, they are united as their ends (although they could also do a better job in explaining to the electorate exactly what these are) but divided as to the means – the differences could be summarised in a very few words as breadth of support (City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta) versus depth of reforms (Patricia Bullrich). The latter justifies her disdain for consensus with the argument that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures – she also has in her favour the concrete precedent that Néstor Kirchner with only 22 percent of the vote in 2003 redefined the face of Argentine politics for the next two decades with intense minorities determining the course of history in so many places and in so many centuries.

And yet even ahead of either Juntos por el Cambio or the electorate deciding in favour of consensus or major surgery, the ground could be moving under her feet in the form of the provincial elections until now. The federal map of 2019 for the opposition coalition was small but homogenous (far more so than for Peronism) – their three inland provinces were all Radical while PRO’s domination of this city was undisputed. Now Peronism and its allies could be reduced to half or less of the country but in the process the opposition could be morphing into the broad front envisaged by Rodríguez Larreta ahead of any political or electoral decision.

In detail the 14 provincial governors elected or re-elected so far this year comprise seven Peronists (including anti-Kirchnerite Córdoba), the Radicals holding Jujuy, four opposition gains (San Juan, San Luis, Neuquén and now Chubut) and basically provincial parties in Misiones and Río Negro. Peronism currently accounts for six of the seven provinces yet to renew their governors (the exception being Radical Mendoza) but can only feel completely safe in Catamarca.

Yet the opposition gains have come at the cost of homogeneity. Only San Juan matches the other three inland Radical provinces. Neuquén and San Luis now pass to discontents from the old régime but perhaps Chubut last weekend is the most eloquent as well as recent example – governor-elect Ignacio Torres (Peronist when even younger than he now is) won by just 1.6 percent and may well have owed victory to his recruitment of oil workers trade unionist Jorge “Bomba” Avila eroding the hitherto decisive Peronist margin in Comodoro Rivadavia (where turnout was battered by Saturday’s gales). At national level the Rodríguez Larreta camp spans from lifelong Peronist Miguel Angel Pichetto to libertarian José Luis Espert.

In these terms winning could be everything and nothing at the same time.    

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