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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 21-04-2023 09:56

PRO or provincial?

Does the end of six decades of one-party rule in Neuquén mark a new era for the province now and for the nation later this year?

Was ending six decades of the rule of the Neuquén Popular Movement (MPN in its Spanish acronym) last Sunday a dramatic overture to what is destined to be a seismic electoral year? Or was it merely a cat fight between the two lieutenant-governors of outgoing Governor Omar Gutiérrez?

Last Saturday’s column predicted that the result would reflect Neuquén being a palindrome (i.e. spelt the same backwards as forwards) since victory has always gone to the MPN ever since its foundation in 1961, no matter which way the vote moves. That forecast was obviously not right but neither was it totally wrong – the official MPN candidate Marcos Koopmann lost by a narrow margin of 2.5 percent but winner Rolando Figueroa of the new-fangled Comunidad party was an MPN loyalist to the point of sharing the 2015 gubernatorial ticket with Gutiérrez until the 2021 midterms and still underlines that he has not left the party (if only to maximise his vote).

This huge upset was thus not an occasion for unqualified opposition celebration – presidential hopeful Patricia Bullrich looked visibly uncomfortable in the PRO chair she is vacating in Sunday night television appearances, as well she might with ex-president Mauricio Macri (who seems to have even less qualms about opposing Radical allies when they belong to the line of Senator Martín Lousteau) campaigning against his own Juntos por el Cambio coalition. 

But perhaps a more important question than the opposition’s right to celebrate is whether there is anything to celebrate? Was it simply the first lieutenant-governor of Gutiérrez getting the better of the second via cobbling together eight different lists ranging from Macri’s PRO to the Movimiento Evita? Or does the end of six decades of one-party rule mark a new era for the province now and for the nation later this year?

Last week’s column was premised on the Vaca Muerta shale boom confirming the MPN grip on the province. Yet not only did last Sunday’s results expose the limitations of that boom with 38 percent of the Neuquén citizenry below the poverty line but also the incomplete links between the MPN and that boom. Koopmann enjoyed the solid backing of the oil workers’ union under their veteran leader Guillermo Pereyra, thus inclining the business end towards a PRO-backed Figueroa. At municipal level the MPN’s Mariano Gaido was comfortably re-elected in the provincial capital while Comunidad won in the fracking areas. The latter’s victory thus potentially points to a shift from the public to private sector although Figueroa has yet to spell it out. While many things remain in the air, change should be welcomed – the MPN regime was more efficient than many (its health services in particular have been praised) but all power tends to corrupt, as Lord Acton observed.

Projecting these provincial results to the national arena has even more severe limitations. The national race is widely seen as being a triangular contest between the ruling Frente de Todos, the Juntos por el Cambio opposition coalition and Javier Milei’s libertarians. The combined votes of all three forces were minorities in both Patagonian provinces running last Sunday, Neuquén and Río Negro – 24.5 percent in Neuquén and a somewhat more respectable 43.74 percent in Río Negro. Before going into any further details about both provinces, let us sketch the broad lines of Río Negro’s considerably less dramatic elections.

That province remains in the hands of the same party, Juntos Somos Río Negro (JSRN), but Senator Alberto Weretilneck now returns to the gubernatorial helm which he held from when Peronist Governor Carlos Soria was shot dead by his wife at the family New Year Party to greet 2012 to 2019 when he transferred the top post to his then Tourism minister, outgoing Governor Arabela Carreras. Weretilneck had cast such a wide net that he was generally expected to win by a landslide but he was a less than expected 17 percent ahead of his main opposition rival, Cambia Río Negro’s Aníbal Tortoriello with 24 percent. That margin shrinks further if measured against the JSRN vote of 30.8 percent but Weretilneck’s name also topped the Nos Une Río Negro list of Senator Martín Doñate and La Cámpora adding almost 11 percent – the latter thus finished on top within a divided Peronism since the mainstream Vamos con Todos (which did not dare to run as Frente de Todos) backed by the Soria clan and presenting Silvia Horne as its gubernatorial candidate polled 10.37 percent while a third Peronist Gustavo Casas, linked to Santa Cruz Governor Alicia Kirchner, took 4.74 percent for a grand Peronist total of 26.09 percent. Weretilneck’s result also compares unfavourably with the absolute majority of 52 percent won by Carreras in 2019.

And the other results? In Río Negro libertarian Ariel Rivero polled 9.3 percent, ex-priest Rafael Zamaro 3.3 percent, the left 4.6 percent (combining the FIT and MAS candidates) and a candidate championing Bariloche local interests 1.76 percent. In Neuquén the two main candidates won approximately a third of the vote each (35.6 percent for Figueroa although only 8.8 percent for his own Comunidad list and 33.08 percent for MPN’s Koopmann) while the four main national options each ran a single candidate in a more clear-cut scenario than Río Negro – Kirchnerite Ramón Rioseco of Frente de Todos garnered 12.74 percent with less than half of his 2019 vote while pro-Lousteau Radical Pablo Cervi representing a Juntos por el Cambio clearly lacking PRO support polled a humiliating 3.77 percent, well behind libertarian Carlos Eguia with almost eight percent while leftist Patricia Jure finished last with 3.27 percent. In Chubut the Radical Gerardo Merino won the mayoral elections in the important city of Trelew for Juntos por el Cambio.

Only some municipal voting in Mendoza next weekend so there should be more focus on the national picture. Jujuy, La Rioja and Misiones will all be holding their provincial elections in the first weekend of May. 

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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