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Argentine Elections 2019: August Primaries

The results of the primaries on 11 August will be a good indication of whether Macri will stand a chance of winning a second term as President of Argentina, which would be a first for a non-Peronist incumbent (he is already the first non-Peronist President since 1928 bound to serve out his full first term). The polls are relatively close, with the Fernandez/Fernandez ticket likely to be ahead in the primaries as voters rail against Macri’s austerity measures and rising inflation. The decision of former President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (CFK), to stand as Vice-President on a ticket headed by Albert Fernandez, former Cabinet head to the Kirchners (2003-8), was a surprise tactical move, which lured into their fold Sergio Massa, a previous Presidential candidate and one of CFK’s stronger critics. Macri has sought to counter this with his choice of Miguel Pichetto, current leader of the Peronist majority in the Senate, as his Vice-President nominee. The results of the elections for Provincial governorships and legislatures suggest an increase in support for the Fernandez/Fernandez ticket but much depends on whether Macri can win over moderate Peronists – and, for that, he must hope for a steady improvement in the Argentine economy.

Argentina’s Electoral System

Argentina will go to the polls on 11 August in the primaries for the main elections on 27 October, when voters will choose the next President of Argentina plus 130 out of the 257 seats in the lower House of Deputies and 24 of the 72 seats in the Senate. If there is no substantive winner in the Presidential race, a run-off election between the top two candidates will be held on 24 November. The inauguration of the new President is scheduled for 10 December 2019.

The system of holding primaries was adopted in 2011, in part to weed out weaker candidates (parties must win at least 1.5% of the vote to field candidates on 27 October). Voting is mandatory for all aged 18 to 70 years and voluntary for 16 and 17 year olds. The primaries are therefore a good indication of how people intend to vote in the main elections.

Separately, most provinces have been holding elections for their Governors and legislatures since March, to keep them distinct from the Presidential election timetable. Two provinces (Corrientes and Misiones) held their elections in 2017; the elections in Sta Cruz (Cristina de Kirchner’s home base) will be held on 11 August with the primaries; Mendoza’s elections will be held on 29 September, and four will be held on 27 October (the City and Province of Buenos Aires, Catamarca, and Formosa). A few provinces (e.g. La Rioja and Santiago del Estero) have yet to set the date for their elections.

The Presidential Contest

The key partnerships standing for the posts of President and Vice-President are:

• Macri and Miguel Pichetto, current leader of the Peronist majority in the Senate (and Senator from Rio Negro), running under a new slogan ‘Together for Change’ (Juntos per el Cambio). Pichetto served under Presidents Menem (1989-99) and Nestor Kirchner (2003-7) and CFK (2007-11) but fell out with her during her second term.

• Alberto Fernandez and CFK. Fernandez, despite being the Kirchners’ Cabinet chief , fell out with CFK when she increased taxes on agricultural exports. Many will suspect that she will be the ‘power behind the scenes’ though Fernandez has stressed that he will put his own stamp on the partnership.

• Roberto Lavagna and Manuel Urtubey. Lavagna, a moderate Peronist (aged 77 years), served as Economics Minister under President Duhalde in 2002-5.Manuel Urtubey is the current Governor of Salta Province from a wealthy Salta family, also a centrist previously allied with Sergio Massa and Juan Schiaretti (newly re-elected Governor of Cordoba Province) trying to forge a ‘third way’ in Argentine politics.

There are other partnerships in the race but most are unlikely to achieve the threshold of 1.5% of the vote to go on to the main elections on 27 October.

President Macri, despite having international support in his efforts to shift Argentina to a more business-friendly economy, has failed to get Argentina out of recession. Argentina’s economy is in dire straits, despite a massive standby arrangement agreed with the IMF. His 4 year term has seen the peso drop significantly against the US$, unemployment rising with more dropping below the poverty level, inflation rampant, and industrial production continuing to fall for 14 straight months. Investors worry about his government’s ability, without further IMF support, to pay scheduled debt repayments of $17bn in 2020 (and larger sums in 2021 and 2022). The budget figures might look marginally better towards the October elections as agricultural exports are factored in but Macri’s promised turnaround has yet to be achieved.

Macri’s future may depend on the degree to which moderate Peronists in the business community (and middle classes) will back him against the prospects of a return to the high taxation and social welfare policies of the Kirchner administrations. CFK remains a controversial figure, popular amongst the poor – her memoirs (‘Sinceramente’) have topped the Argentine best seller lists for weeks – but she remains mired by corruption investigations and disliked for her confrontational style of handling policy issues. Cynics may regard her tactic of joining up with Alberto Fernandez as merely a means to retain her political influence in the country; some have even intimated that she is setting up her son, Maximo, to be a Presidential candidate in 2023. Others may argue that Fernandez may take a more moderating line if he gains the Presidency. Sergio Massa’s decision to throw in his lot with their candidacy may be due in part to that but perhaps more to the promise of securing a lead appointment in the House of Deputies. But Fernandez has worried some sectors by threatening to devalue the peso further and lower interest rates on government bonds.

So far, opinion polls (now stopped until after the close of voting on 11 August) have shown the Fernandez/Fernandez partnership as being in front but not by irretrievable margins. This has been borne out by the general increase in the Peronist vote against Macri candidates in the provincial elections . But several provinces re-elected their incumbent Governors or elected their nominees for their succession – or have chosen candidates representing local interests rather than the traditional party divide. The real test for Macri will be the battle for the governorship of the Province of Buenos Aires between the incumbent, Maria Eugenia Vidal, one of Macri’s strongest supporters (with a high popularity rating) and Axel Kicillof, CFK’s last Economics Minister – Vidal’s win in 2015 was crucial to Macri’s election.

The primaries will be a good test of public opinion and could influence voting trends in the October elections. But some pundits argue that if the results of the primaries are close enough, there might be time for either side to strengthen their position for the October elections but, if the results of the race for the Presidency are then still too close to call, Macri may gain more from Lavagna/Urtubey supporters than the Fernandez/Fernandez ticket.

Implications for the Falkland Islands

Why are the Argentine elections important for the Falkland Islands? Simply because if Alberto Fernandez and CFK win, Argentine policies towards the Falkland Islands risk a reversion to the confrontational politics of the Kirchners. President Macri, whilst not compromising on Argentina’s sovereignty claim, has at least reduced the rhetoric and initiated some improvements in relations.

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