Argentine Elections 2017: An Initial Overview
Election fever begins to heat up in Argentina as Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner returns to the fray. The mid-term elections in October, preceded by the August primaries, will be a real test of President Macri’s popularity. His economic policies have yet to attract the international investment necessary for jobs and business growth and have had a negative social impact domestically. He might be helped by divisions within Peronism and the realisation that his predecessor left Argentina in a real economic mess. Neither Macri nor Cristina can gain control of Congress in these elections but Macri needs support in the Senate to implement his legislative programme.
Argentina’s mid-term elections will be held on 22 October, with the primaries on 13 August. About half the seats of the Chamber of Deputies will be up for grabs and a third of the seats in the Senate.1 None of the Governorships will be affected and elections for the Presidency will not be held until 2019.
These elections will be a crucial test for Macri. They are already regarded as a popularity poll on his government and a prelude to the 2019 Presidential race. Macri is nervous. No non-Peronist President has served his full term in Argentine history – and his radical economic reforms have been slow to produce results.
The problem is that the Argentine economy has not grown fast enough since his accession to produce the jobs and business confidence that would offset the social impact of his reforms. Macri has done all the right things – pushing measures through to boost business activity, allowing the peso to find its true value, removing subsidies on utilities, cutting sinecure jobs, doing a deal with Argentina’s creditors, offering a tax amnesty to reverse capital flight, and restoring credibility to Government statistics. This has given him international approval and borrowing flexibility but big investors have remained cautious and Argentina has yet to gain an improved credibility rating (or OECD membership).
The negative side of this is that inflation is about 20% and GDP is falling. The removal of utility subsidies (electricity, gas, water) has hurt low income families. Unemployment has increased to 9.2% (from 7.5% on Macri’s election in 2015) and the level of poverty has increased significantly. Popular disquiet has increased, with mass protests instigated by the trade unions.
Macri has been helped, however, by the divisions within the Peronist movement, with Cristina de Kirchner and her cronies arraigned on various corruption charges. For some time, she kept a relatively low profile but she now feels that Macri is vulnerable – his popularity rating has slipped to 41%. In late June, Cristina launched a new party – ‘Unidad Ciudadana (or ‘Citizens United’) – in front of 30,000 supporters in a Buenos Aires soccer stadium, declaring her intention to stand for a Senate seat in the Province of Buenos Aires.
BA Province is one of the largest, most influential constituencies, along with the City Of Buenos Aires – and given that all three seats are up for re-election, it is likely that Cristina will get in. On the Peronist side, she faces Florencio Randazzo (a former minister in her administration, who has said that he would not have put his name forward had he known that she would stand) and Sergio Massa (who left his post as Cabinet Secretary having been alienated by her confrontational style of government). Currently, the opinion polls suggest that she and Macri’s candidate, Esteban Bulrich, of ‘Cambiemos’ are running neck and neck. The question will be which party will gain the most votes and so two out of the three Senate seats. The way that Massa’s supporters vote could therefore be decisive.
The Falklands will also be an issue in the elections. Macri has been criticised by Argentine diehards for his ‘softer’ stance, though he has not compromised on Argentina’s sovereignty claim. The Kirchners had made the Falklands almost the sole issue in UK/Argentina bilateral relations. On election, Macri undertook to broaden the bilateral relationship with the UK in contrast with the Kirchners’ policy of constant confrontation. This has rankled with many. Just recently, the UK media revealed that rogue officers in Argentina’s ‘Comando de Aviacion Ejercito’ had planned a covert insertion by helicopter of 14 commandos (and an official photographer) into the Falklands to take a photograph of the Argentine flag flying in the Falkland Islands. The resulting photo would have been used to influence the elections. President Macri has announced himself as ‘appalled’ at the idea and has ordered an inquiry.
Another factor in the equation, which might be held against Cristina de Kirchner, is that if she is elected to the Senate, she will gain immunity from prosecution on the various corruption charges that have been presented against her, at least for while she serves in the Senate. Macri has taken a strong line against corruption; Cristina and her cronies allegedly never did.
The Pope, despite his Argentine nationality, has properly maintained his distance. Despite his earlier visits to Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay, the Vatican has announced that he will visit Colombia, Chile and Peru this year (but not Argentina).
1 Chamber of Deputies: elected by proportional representation in 24 multi-member constituencies based on the 24 provinces (including the City of Buenos Aires). This year, 127 out of the 257 seats will be available. Each Deputy is elected for a four year term. Senate: 72 Senators are elected in the same 24 constituencies (with three seats in each). This year, 24 seats will be available in 8 provinces (electing 3 Senators in each). The party receiving the most votes in each constituency will gain two seats in the Senate with the other seat going to the second placed party.