Today is the first day of the rest of their lives for thousands of candidates nationwide as the deadline for August’s PASO primaries expires at midnight – and also millions of citizens in their audience although not as many millions as they might like to think since opinion polls show only 35 percent of the electorate at most to share their fascination with the battles ahead or to see this year as anything of a turning-point. Although in theory anything could change in the next few hours, the big picture seems firmly defined with most candidates running behind the new polarisation resulting from two surprise moves – two-term ex-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s tactical retreat to the vice-presidential candidacy and President Mauricio Macri’s decision to expand his rebranded coalition with his own choice of running-mate.
But the devil lies in the detail at every level. Replacing fragmentation with polarisation only means that instead of trying their luck in the PASO, the various political satellites of the two major blocs now internalise the competition. In this week’s main campaign development Renewal Front leader Sergio Massa backed away from any PASO presidential candidacy to head the Frente de Todos Lower House list with the ambition of becoming Speaker but his example is not necessarily being followed by the many non-Kirchnerite Peronist and “third way” politicians now flocking into the two main armies – and nor is there much scope to accommodate them. Even with the main battle-lines so clearly drawn, there will doubtless be frantic jostling and last-minute negotiations throughout today for myriad parliamentary, provincial and municipal candidacies nationwide between loyalists and newcomers with some finding their new place in the sun like Massa and others trying their luck in PASO – Massa’s own fiefdom of Tigre is only one example. But since we have neither space for so many candidacies nor any means of knowing tonight’s final outcome, we will leave it at that for now at this level.
While the devil lies in the detail, there is also the danger of not seeing the wood for the trees. Such startling shifts as Kirchnerism not being headed by a Kirchner for the first time since formation of the Calafate Group in 1998 (even if the Fernández surname survives) or the addition of a Peronist wing to Macri’s ruling coalition have done surprisingly little to change the tone of the campaign with last week’s news only adding new ammunition to the same old arguments. Macri continues to base his case for re-election on the need to defend republican institutions against populism and Flag Day week delivered some apposite news items such as the call for a “CONADEP of journalism” or the insistence of Frente de Todos presidential candidate Alberto Fernández on reviewing the trials of Kirchnerite corruption. The prominence of an “It’s the economy, stupid!” strategy in the opposition campaign rivals the 1992 United States election and last Wednesday some new grim data along these lines emerged from INDEC statistics bureau – the return of double-digit unemployment for the first time in 13 years and negative growth of minus 5.8 percent for the first quarter of this year as compared with the same period in 2018.
There has been one important change from the new polarisation unfolding over the last month, however – a November run-off no longer seems inevitable. The two reloaded main tickets now look eminently capable of clearing the 40 percent hurdle required for first-round victory and could even aspire to the 45 percent which would remove the need for a doubledigit lead over other candidates. Yet this scenario is no more inevitable than the November run-off it is starting to replace. With more than four months to go before the general elections, there is still plenty of time for some black swan to leave one of the main options dead in the water, which would leave the currently stricken “third way” ideally placed to pick up the middle ground. Were this to happen, the option of a more moderate opposition would be a far better base for a healthy two-party system than populism.
But all that lies in the future – today is the first day of the rest of the campaign.