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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 17-06-2023 06:04

Argentina’s political hegemony crumbles in the face of primaries

In a nation accustomed to charismatic leaders that create vertical organisations, the fragmentation of the political field is creating a whole lot of stress and volatility. And savagery has taken over.

Over the past several years, Argentina’s political system has managed a sort of equilibrium state, despite a constant sense of crisis. Since the 2001 implosion of the socio-political-economic fabric of the country, an antagonistic group made up of Peronists and Kirchnerites on the one hand, and anti-Peronists and Radicals on the other, has controlled the political scene. That circumstance went in line with the general make-up of the political spectrum at least since the return of democracy in 1983, with Peronists managing to maintain a hegemonic state for long durations and the opposition, be it in the form of the Radicals or Mauricio Macri’s Cambiemos coalition, leading to moments of turbulence after auspicious beginnings. Over the past decade, the current iteration of that antagonistic struggle has been expressed by a bi-coalitionism that until recently pitted the pan-Peronist Frente de Todos — rebranded for this election as “Unión por la Patria” or “United for the Homeland” — against Juntos por el Cambio, a centre-right coalition that had annexed the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR).

The failure of the Alberto Fernández-Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration looked to have almost guaranteed a victory for Juntos por el Cambio, but the sudden emergence of a third alternative that sits to their right and channels voters’ anger on both sides of the aisle has shocked the system. Ultra-libertarian economist Javier Milei has dragged the political system toward the edges, essentially fracturing Juntos por el Cambio with the coalition’s hawks and doves battling it out for supremacy. The failure of a Peronist government has also seen some of the disillusioned move toward Milei in what appears to be a remake of the 2001 sentiment that the whole political class was to blame for the disastrous state of the nation. This has created a fracture within the pan-Peronist coalition between moderates and hardliners, the latter under the wing of Vice-President Fernández de Kirchner. In this context Argentina faces massive uncertainty going into a primary election that, for the first time, is testing the strength of both coalitions while potentially giving an advantage to Milei, who appears set to emerge as the single most voted-for individual candidate which, despite reflecting an incomplete read of the vote given a higher expected tally for the coalitions, could give him a boost going into the actual election.

Argentine politicians are ill prepared for a system of primaries. At the same time the way in which the PASOs are set up generates huge risks for the traditional players. At this juncture it isn’t clear whether this is due to the fact that the obligatory and open ballots function essentially as a first-round vote in what has become a de facto three-round election, or whether it represents the failure of the “mainstream” traditional political parties/coalitions. In a nation accustomed to charismatic leaders who create vertical organisations, the fragmentation of the political field is creating a whole lot of stress and volatility. And savagery has taken over.

Starting with the opposition, a battle royale situation has given way to the emergence of two clear contenders: Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and former security minister and (on-leave) PRO party president Patricia Bullrich. They are joined by several second-tier candidates in terms of projected voting intention which could further fragment the field, all of which have contributed to a general state of confusion that projects an image of political infighting that is increasingly unattractive to an electorate that in 2015 voted them into power on a platform of change and hope. While both sides appear to see eye-to-eye on the economic issues, which is one of the defining factors in an election marked by escalating triple-digit inflation, it’s the politics where they differ. Rodríguez Larreta aims to build a 70-percent supermajority that includes moderate Peronists willing to support a reform package through consensus. Bullrich finds herself more comfortable negotiating with Mieli to pass a similar but potentially more aggressive reform package while eradicating Kirchnerism’s long-time hold on Argentine politics. She counts on Macri’s explicit support. In private, and in public, their leading economists agree that harsh austerity is the way out. “No -one wins an election promising budget cuts,” warns one of Argentina’s leading political advisors.

Across the aisle, the nascent Unión por la Patria is anything but united. With Fernández de Kirchner deciding to sit this one out given impossibly high rejection figures (even if she claims it’s about political proscription), she remains the single-most popular leader in the sector. She outsmarted her opponents in 2019 picking a “nobody” in electoral terms to lead the ticket, Alberto Fernández. Once in power, bloody civil war erupted, rendering the government completely inefficient. In its wake the Fernández-Fernández government has left triple-digit inflation and a deteriorating economic situation that has been on the edge of the precipice for at least a year now. The global Covid-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and one of the worst droughts in decades are definitely to blame for the current situation, as is the economic debacle Macri left behind (which in great part he inherited from CFK and subsequently worsened) yet the political infighting, procrastination, and failed policymaking has made way to a potentially disastrous defeat in this year’s elections.

As Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s star has faded, her capacity to impose conditions on the Peronist field has wavered. Rather than hand-picking the next candidate solo, her political faction has been dragged into an unheard-of primary by none other than Alberto, who has little to no political support. The president has thrown his weight behind Argentina’s Ambassador to Brazil, Daniel Scioli’s, while the Kirchnerites have been pushing for Interior Minister Eduardo ‘Wado’ De Pedro to pick up the baton. Economy Minister Sergio Massa, an eternal “favourite” for the nomination, was convinced it was his turn, but his incapacity to control inflation and put the economy on an upward trajectory has rained on his parade. His communications team still pushes the idea he will run, despite Massa having said he wouldn’t partake in primaries. Several others have thrown their hat in the ring, despite essentially negligible chances. Ultimately, Cristina has lost her touch and the coalition is incapable of generating a palatable candidate. Much like their cousins, all this talk of candidacies and political posts has done nothing more than alienate the potential electorate which also blames them, as well as Juntos, for the current mess we are in.

Laughing at them all is Milei, the economist that was brushed off as crazy and now has a real chance at making waves. A political outsider, he’s made his way into the mainstream on the back of an anti-system message that channels society’s anger. Who cares what he says, be it dollarisation, “chainsaw” deficit reduction or organ-selling, it’s all about raising a giant middle finger at the political class he’s smartly branded as “the caste.” It isn’t entirely clear whether opinion-poll projections will pan out to real votes, given the novelty of the phenomenon and other complexities of the Argentine political system, such as guaranteeing ballots are there and votes are correctly counted. Yet his emergence is proof that the system has been turned on its head and that all options are on the table. Being his party’s only presidential candidate, he will probably win the primary as an individual candidate, even if the coalitions come out ahead collectively. Yet, if he manages to turn promises into votes, he could outstrip the Peronists in the first round of the presidential ballot, making it to the run-off where the election is won by a single vote.

At the end of the day, Argentina’s political system wasn’t ready for primaries when they were introduced. They now appear to be more destructive than expected for the traditional parties and the system lends itself to wild outcomes. Time will tell.

Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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