Thursday, November 30, 2023

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 30-09-2023 05:07

Hat-trick or the third wheel?

Any win helps and far more so when the margin of Alfredo Cornejo’s victory in Mendoza surpassed all expectations. But does this injection of enthusiasm reviving optimism reach the dimensions of a game-changer for Patricia Bullrich?

Hat-tricks are every striker’s dream in football but it’s three strikes and out in baseball – which way does the magic number of three cut for Juntos por el Cambio presidential candidate Patricia Bullrich after completing her treble of provincial election victories in successive Sundays in Mendoza last weekend, following on from Santa Fe and Chaco? And no lean pickings either because that trio includes two of the country’s five largest electorates.

Throughout this year pundits have warned against projecting provincial results into the national scenario – this month has shown the reverse to be true with neither Chaco nor Mendoza upholding their national PASO primary verdicts in their subsequent provincial voting. This columnist imagined that libertarian Javier Milei’s landslide PASO win with almost 45 percent (more than doubling the vote for Bullrich despite her Mendoza running-mate Luis Petri) would give his kindred spirit Omar De Marchi the momentum to pull off an upset, but De Marchi could only pool around two-thirds of Milei’s haul and the once and future Radical governor Alfredo Cornejo became the province’s first case of a gubernatorial comeback.

Last Saturday’s column argued that its risky forecast of a De Marchi win would make its other bold prediction of a Bullrich national victory next month (more of a gut feeling than anything else) even rasher. Does this work the other way round – does Bullrich triumphantly crowning her provincial hat-trick last weekend shorten the odds in the uphill struggle to overcome last month’s PASO frustration? Obviously any win helps and far more so when the margin of Cornejo’s victory surpassed all expectations but does this injection of enthusiasm reviving optimism reach the dimensions of a game-changer?

Impossible to answer that question either way – it is likely to place Bullrich on the right side of 25 percent rather than the wrong side into which she has slipped in the past month and might even carry her to within the margin of error with her two main rivals, Milei and Economy Minister Sergio Massa, both of whom have more than their fair share of self-destructive tendencies. Yet Mendoza does not directly address the problems of her campaign. Analysts tend to focus on incomplete retention of the vote of her internal primary rival, Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta (estimated at around two-thirds), but perhaps the most important losses are coming in Buenos Aires Province where in the PASO primary Juntos por el Cambio finished a strong second as the automatic alternative, only three percent behind the incumbent Peronism and almost 10 percent ahead of Milei whose nationwide win has since demoted Bullrich to “second brand” also in BA Province.

But her biggest problem might well be that the most decisive category in these elections stands to be not the traditional brackets of age, class, gender, etc. but whether the voter is inside or outside the system. Too much of an impoverished Argentina lies outside the system and among these people there is already a first-round run-off between Massa and Milei – will the natural attractions of an anti-system candidate for people outside the system prevail or can Massa multiply his electoral goodies sufficiently to bribe their support with Juntos por el Cambio having little to say here?

But little point in speculating if there are still three weeks to go when tomorrow’s presidential debate could already make a difference – a tiny percentage perhaps but so little is needed with barely 630,000 votes separating the three main candidates in the PASO primary. Abraham Lincoln might insist that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time but Massa need only fool a few hundred thousand for a few weeks to make the run-off. 

And even assuming absolute voter loyalty for the five surviving presidential candidates (with Córdoba Peronist Governor Juan Schiaretti in particular looking frail) there is such a huge pool of votes out there. Almost 11 million citizens did not vote at all in the PASO primary with spoiled or blank ballots bringing the non-voting total up to 12,125,131 of the electorate of 35,394,425. Of the 23,269,294 valid votes, no less than 5,133,859 votes were cast for the 22 eliminated hopefuls (of whom the fringe parties account for 744,484 votes, more than enough alone to make a difference) with the three main candidates commanding less than half the PASO votes (16,769,348 to be exact).

But numbers are not everything – words can also matter with tomorrow’s presidential debate potentially reshaping the election. And talking of debates… 

This column’s normal press time is more or less simultaneous with the hours of Wednesday’s City mayoral debate, making some mention now as obligatory as any complete analysis is impossible – that will have to await next Saturday where it can accompany tomorrow’s presidential debate. Which in some ways is fitting since if the mayoral debate left one thing clear, it is that what bears the official name of “Autonomous City of Buenos Aires” is not all that autonomous but heavily influenced by the national government, despite major differences in agenda.

Thumbnail impressions of the four participants – frontrunner Jorge Macri (Juntos por el Cambio) saw little need to change the rhetorical cards in a winning hand and concentrated on his proposals, an articulate Unión por la Patria candidate Leandro Santoro sought not to stray from the middle ground, libertarian Ramiro Marra played the abrasively simplistic showman in a determined bid to become competitive enough to transform an underwhelming PASO performance into a run-off spot at Santoro’s expense on whom he centred his fire and leftist Vanina Biasi, the only woman, was perhaps the most predictable. But the general standard was superior to the previous Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate (excessively in orbit around the libertarian Victoria Villarruel), at least in the opinion of this columnist.

Among the issues housing issues in general and rent in particular seemed to draw the most debate with Macri surprisingly critical of his own party’s building code although such topics as health, education, the pickets and the Subte underground train service also surfaced.

Until Wednesday’s debate this columnist felt that the City mayoral contest hinges on Macri’s retention of the Juntos por el Cambio vote in last month’s PASO primary – at almost 56 percent this might look like “game over” but within that vote Macri’s margin over Radical Senator Martín Lousteau was 1.5 percent with at least some of the latter’s voters perhaps having more overlap with Santoro’s Radical origins and ideas than with Macri. But Marra’s surprisingly high viewer approval ratings, quadrupling his substandard PASO vote of under 13 percent, indicates that October’s voting in this city could be different from August’s.

Finally, a slightly more detailed look at Mendoza as not the last province to elect a governor (this city and the provinces of Buenos Aires, Catamarca and Entre Ríos will be voting locally as well as nationally on October 22) but bringing to a close a lengthy provincial voting season over the last 23 weeks. First, the raw data – almost a million (978,138) out of an electorate of 1,492,379 voted or a turnout of slightly under two-thirds. Cornejo picked up 39.5 percent of the vote (just under or just over 40 percent all night) while De Marchi ended on 29.67 percent. A distant third for Peronist Omar Parisi with 14.74 percent (the movement’s worst-ever performance in the province despite Massa’s frantic electioneering at national level), a striking double-digit percentage (11.86 percent) for the Green Party’s Mario Vadillo, a performance receiving more attention than it received, and a distant last place for leftist Lautaro Jiménez of Frente de Izquierda (4.23 percent) in perhaps Argentina’s most conservative province. The key to Cornejo’s success was retaining around 80 percent of the Juntos por el Cambio total vote of 49 percent from the provincial PASO primary in June when the senator won three votes for every two for ex-deputy Petri. No room for more – next week will be a week of debates from start to finish. 

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Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.


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