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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 16-09-2023 05:37

It’s the election, stupid!

By all but abolishing income tax, Massa has also abolished the contradiction between his simultaneous economic stewardship and presidential candidacy by chucking away his ministerial hat in favour of his electioneering cap.

Who can doubt the supremacy of this column’s subject matter when by all but abolishing income tax, Sergio Massa has also abolished the contradiction between his simultaneous economic stewardship and presidential candidacy by chucking away his ministerial hat in favour of his electioneering cap? As if topping the “plan platita” spending spree with massive revenue cuts is likely to improve the 12.4 percent August inflation figure announced last Wednesday.

Nevertheless, this column’s brief is the election campaign, not Massa’s tax stunts, and the latter can only be analysed insofar as they affect the former. While frontrunner Javier Milei continues to ride last month’s PASO primary win, Massa’s barely disguised bribe was one potential game-changer in the past week to oppose that tide – the other was last Sunday’s Juntos por el Cambio landslide in Santa Fe. Before taking a closer look at that provincial election (plus a preview of tomorrow’s voting in Chaco), a paragraph or so on the current state of play for each of next month’s presidential candidates.

Milei has momentum and while not quite everybody loves a winner, as often said, he does not need that much to cross the line with a few opinion polls even projecting a first-round win. Being politically incorrect is a huge advantage here – while candidates presenting themselves as paragons of wisdom and virtue need only one gaffe to take a tumble, with Milei not only can two wrongs make a right but dozens of wrongs and after all, right is right, right?

As Economy Minister, Sergio Massa has the deepest of pockets, as he has been doing his very best to show this week, and he does not need that much to make it into the run-off although nowhere near avoiding one – thus the narrow PASO margin between Juntos por el Cambio (28 percent) and Unión por la Patria (27.28 percent) could be bridged merely by absorbing the 0.77 percent of the ultra-Peronist Guillermo Moreno’s Principios y Valores (of the 19 fringe hopefuls falling below the 1.5 percent threshold, 10 might be loosely identified with the government’s left-leaning Peronism, seven with the far right, two with the hard left and none with the mainstream opposition). Mobilising the provincial governors (who, even already elected themselves, are motivated to help their pet candidates for Congress, in some cases their wives and sisters to meet gender quotas) should also boost Massa’s vote beyond PASO levels. But against that black swans are flocking on the horizon with the deepening crisis of a fragile economy – and while the latest black swan (the Manhattan ruling sentencing Argentina to a staggering US$16 billion for the legally botched 2012 nationalisation of YPF oil) has been appealed and thus does not enter everyday life, future cloudbursts might carry far more immediacy.

Patricia Bullrich has had a rough month since having to taste PASO primary defeat in the moment of victory when clinching the Juntos por el Cambio presidential nomination with most recent opinion poll projections pointing to a runoff dictating that Argentina’s next president will be a five-letter surname beginning with “M” (and probably this City’s next mayor too) but last weekend’s resounding Santa Fe triumph could just be a turning-point. And not because of that victory as such because it was a supreme vindication of her defeated rival City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta’s methodology over her own hawkish purism – a 15-party “front of fronts” headed by Radical Maximiliano Pullaro virtually monopolised Santa Fe’s non-Peronist vote. More encouraging and more consistent with her political identity was the way her victory message seemed to finally shake off the shadow of a Milei distant from the provincial voting, virtually ignoring him to revive the historic polarisation between Kirchnerism and anti-Kirchnerism as the heart of her discourse. This focus on the Kirchnerism in power instead of the libertarian challenge might just work.

Anyway, there are still four or five weekends to speculate about where next month’s elections will take last month’s three-way split – today’s column properly belongs to Santa Fe and Chaco.

What numbers are we talking about in Santa Fe? Pullaro reached his target of seven-digit support (1,023,759 votes) with 58.4 percent last Sunday after starting the night with 64 percent in early counting. Peronist Senator Marcelo Lewandowski lost badly while topping both half a million votes (540,997) and 30 percent (30.86 percent). Edelvino Bodoira of Viva la Libertad (the closest thing to Milei) was a distant third with 6.47 percent (113,513 votes) and leftist Carla Deiana finished last with 4.26 percent (74,743 votes). Blank and spoiled ballots totalled 4.72 percent while turnout was 68.27 percent of the 2,818,280 Santa Fe citizens eligible to vote.

How do these numbers compare to the July 16 primaries? Pullaro actually failed to net the entire Unidos para Cambiar Santa Fe primary vote of 64 percent although still a big winner while all three losers improved their primary results – Lewandowski (from a primary total of just under 28 percent for four Peronist hopefuls) and Deiana (from a July leftist vote of 3.9 percent) slightly while Bodoira more than doubled the three percent for his pro-life stance eight weekends previously. This comparison with the primary might detract somewhat from this huge opposition triumph because the eight percent rise in turnout did not benefit Pullaro with his percentage slipping, even if the 43,000 extra votes enabled him to hit his target of a million. Provincial voting can never be projected nationally but the higher turnout when it comes to real elections (at least four or five percent more voters) will not necessarily benefit Bullrich.

Below the gubernatorial level there were some interesting results, notably the re-election of Rosario Mayor Pablo Javkin in a close and polarised race against Juan Monteverde, a militant leftist ally of Juan Grabois closer to the pickets than to Peronism but running for the latter. The vote breakdown there was 51.34 percent for Javkin and 48.66 for Monteverde – much easier for Unidos para Cambiar Santa Fe in the provincial capital where former hospital director Juan Carlos Poletti swept two-thirds of the vote. Also comfortable for the victors at legislative level where socialist Clara García (the widow of 2015-19 governor Miguel Lifschitz, a Covid-19 victim) could pick up 28 of the 50 seats with a third of the vote thanks to a bonus for the winners – outgoing Peronist Governor Omar Perotti polled almost 28 percent and pro-life militant Amalia Granata almost 20 percent. Pullaro will also enjoy a two-thirds majority in the provincial senate thanks to winning 13 of Santa Fe’s 19 departments.

Not much space left for Chaco and perhaps not much needed either because tomorrow’s election is unlikely to decide the issue with a seemingly inevitable October 8 runoff between Peronist Governor Jorge Capitanich seeking a fourth term and Radical Leandro Zdero. The opinion polls generally place Capitanich a couple of points ahead but within their own margin of error, never mind the much broader one imposed by the recent track record of surveys (which gave Pullaro an advantage of 20 percent when he won by almost 30). In the primaries Juntos por el Cambio outvoted Capitanich’s Frente Chaqueño by five points but this was in the full heat of the uproar over the disappearance of Cecilia Strzyzowski while Chaco was one of only five provinces to give Massa PASO primary victory so June 18 might not be the governor’s Waterloo. There are four other candidates, two Peronists (with ex-governor Domingo Peppo stepping down at the last minute) and two libertarians (Alfredo Rodríguez and Rubén Galassi) of whom three are strong enough to remove any chance of an absolute majority for the two main rivals – Resistencia Peronist Mayor Gustavo Martínez and former lieutenant-governor Juan Carlos Bacilleff Ivanoff on the Peronist side and Rodríguez with the latter two close to double digits.

Much more on Chaco likely next week plus a preview of Mendoza.

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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