Argentine Elections: August 2017 Primaries

President Macri will have been encouraged by the results of the August primaries in Argentina. His ‘Cambiemos’ (Let’s Change) grouping has consolidated its position as the largest single party in the country and he should pick up more seats in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies if voting patterns remain the same in the October elections. But former President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, looks set to gain a seat for herself in the Senate, where she will seek to disrupt Macri’s political agenda and it is statistically impossible as of now for Macri to gain a majority in the lower House. The primaries are, however, more of an opinion poll and much could happen to sway voters’ intentions before the actual elections on 22 October. 

The Argentine primaries were held on 13 August and were an important test of Macri’s popularity in the run-up to the mid-term elections on 22 October. The system of holding primaries in Argentina is relatively recent: they were introduced to revitalise the party system and make the selection of candidates more transparent after the political turmoil in late 2001 when Argentina ran through four Presidents in a month. The use of primaries also winnows out the ‘also rans’: any candidate must have secured the support of at least 1.5% of voters to be able to stand in the national elections. 

In the Chamber of Deputies, about half of the seats in the 24 provinces (including the city of Buenos Aires) will be available in the October elections. The result of the primaries showed that Macri’s ‘Cambiemos’ commanded about 36% of the total vote and led the field in most of the provinces with the largest number of seats on offer e.g. Buenos Aires City (25 seats of which 13 are up for re-election in October); Cordoba (18 seats and 9 respectively); Mendoza (10 and 5). Even in the province of Santa Cruz, the home base of Cristina de Kirchner, where her sister-in-law, Alicia, is Governor, Cambiemos came out firmly on top. If these results are reflected in the mid-term elections, Macri can expect to gain more Congressional seats than in 2015 but not a working majority. 

In the Senate, there are three representatives from each of the 24 Provinces (including Buenos Aires city), a total of 72 seats. In October, elections will be held in eight provinces – Buenos Aires, Formosa, Jujuy, La Rioja, Misiones, San Juan, San Luis, and Santa Cruz. The party with the most votes will gain two of the three seats and the next in line one seat. In the primaries, Cambiemos led the poll convincingly in Jujuy, San Luis, and Santa Cruz with a close miss after a lengthened count in the province of Buenos Aires. Much depends therefore on whether Macri’s Cambiemos can top the October poll in each of the eight Senate constituencies in question in order to be able to win two seats rather than just the one. 

The Province of Buenos Aires will be the crucial contest in October, since it represents over 35% of the national electorate in Argentina. In the primaries, Cristina de Kirchner set herself up with former Foreign Minister, Jorge Taiana, in late June in a new political party – ‘Unidad Ciudadana (Citizens United)’ – to run for Senate in the province of Buenos Aires. Her opponents were Esteban Bullrich for Cambiemos, Florencio Randazzo (a former Minister for Education in her administration), Sergio Massa (who served temporarily as her Cabinet Secretary before becoming disillusioned). Initial results, with over 95% of the returns counted, showed Cristina and Bullrich running neck and neck, with Bullrich marginally in the lead. The final (delayed) result gave a marginal lead to Cristina. If replicated in the October elections, this could be significant in that the winner takes two seats and the runner-up just one. This may well depend on how Sergio Massa’s supporters will vote (and they are more likely to support Cambiemos than Cristina). Whatever the case, barring a change of circumstance, Cristina is bound to gain a Senate seat in October, from which she can rally opposition to the Macri administration. 

International pundits have adjudged the primaries to have boosted Macri’s position, although he is unlikely to be given a free hand in the October mid-term elections. But international investors are more likely to want Macri to win against the populist and protectionist policies espoused by Cristina. Indeed, when she announced her candidacy the Argentine peso fell significantly, forcing the Central Bank to spend over US $2 billion in propping it up. It may still be difficult for Macri to attract the heavy inward investment that he needs to kick-start Argentina’s economy, although there are signs of an upturn in Argentina’s economic indicators. 

Cristina herself is still mired in corruption charges and suffers from fierce criticism of her policies and personality. She can whip up support, particularly amongst the urban poor - but, from this vantage point, she is unlikely to receive the support necessary to stand in the 2019 Presidential race. She has too much baggage to bear – and Peronism is too fragmentary now to provide her with a winning base (and perhaps unlikely to find another, more unifying candidate to rally around). The prospect to Macri of a second term in Presidential office must be deeply enticing; he would be the first non-Peronist to jump that hurdle.