A Breakdown Of Argentina’s Primaries: Alberto Fernández & Cristina Kirchner Have The Most To Lose

It is becoming increasingly harder to cut through the noise and identify the underlying principles Argentina’s major political players hold ahead of the PASO primaries, which promise to have a substantial impact on the actual election itself come November and the general political configuration between now and 2023. 

The pan-Peronist governing coalition, Frente de Todos, has been in disarray almost since taking the presidency back from Mauricio Macri in 2019. An uneasy marriage between Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (who “owned” the largest chunk of votes) and Sergio Massa, along with the league of Peronist governors supposedly mediated by Alberto Fernández, its fraying has increased with the heat of the pandemic, constant economic crisis and its catch-all ideology. In the opposition coalition a first claim to success was having maintained unity after a calamitous end to their administration, yet it quickly began to tear at the seams too. Hawks and doves pitted Macri’s followers against Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, while the Radical Civic Union (UCR) sought once again to regain its centrality as the one antagonist force to Peronism. Defeating the enemy, it seems, is the only thing keeping each coalition together.

The fractures surrounding the two major opposing forces of Argentine politics at the national level, along with global tendencies across Western democracies as a consequence of the exhaustion of a particular brand of capitalism to create all-around wealth, have become the breeding ground for certain degrees of ideological extremism. Alive within both major coalitions, they have become highly visible here in the form of outspoken economists José Luis Espert and Javier Miliei, who are leading tickets in the Buenos Aires Province and City respectively for Avanza Libertad. Despite counting on a well-defined ideological position rooted in the Austrian economic school and a certain hard-line toward crime generally attributed to rightist politics, they stand out for their aggressive style in televised debates. Generally calling their opponents “fascists,” they have a tendency toward an almost authoritarian conception of reality based on ultraliberalism. Everything else is a “theoretical aberration.” A “moderate” Peronist who ran the Interior Ministry for Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner, Florencio Randazzo, looking to absorb votes from both sides, completes the round up in the Buenos Aires electoral districts which have become the centre of this race.

The level of uncertainty is sky-high coming into these primaries. Since at least the 2015 presidential election and Macri’s surprise victory — more of consequence of anti-Kirchnerism than an ideological alignment with his coalition’s superficial conceptual platform — major pollsters across Argentina have gotten it exceptionally wrong. Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner wasn’t expected to suffer a defeat in Buenos Aires Province in 2017 (or at the national level in 2015 for that matter), and Macri’s coalition thought it could actually win re-election in 2019 given Kirchnerism’s supposed political obsolescence. The “fear of getting it wrong” adds to the complexities of trying to seduce an embattled electorate that has tasted the rotten economic policymaking of Cristina, Macri, and Alberto up to now. The global Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage across the globe, despite having eased substantially over the past few months in Argentina, yet its emotional and economic side effects are still playing out. And we cannot forget President Alberto’s series of unforced errors, which have eroded his standing in opinion polls to levels that should be expected by the end of the first, maybe the second mandate.

The intellectual poverty of the Argentine political field is laid bare in the superficiality of public debate. The government’s candidates have relied on the “blame Macri” strategy, much like the government itself since taking office. The former president and his four years in the Casa Rosada are the root cause of every evil, from economic decrepitude to the institutional weakness caused by corruption and a crooked Judiciary. Cristina’s catastrophic second mandate is now celebrated as a time of plenty.

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While a little more heterogeneous, the opposition’s strategy is similar in that it focuses on the Fernández-Fernández administration’s deficient management of the pandemic. From excessive lockdowns to insufficient vaccines, Juntos’ suggestions that “we would’ve done it better” remain unsubstantiated. Almost every government in the world has struggled with Covid-19, while recent experience doesn’t suggest a superlative management of the state by the opposition coalition.

The liberals, of course, claim public spending needs to be slashed aggressively, taxes as well, suggesting it would unleash economic growth, yet they seem out of touch with a reality where more than 50 percent of the population is below the line of poverty. Beyond the strong objections to their concepts of “top-down” growth, how exactly they would engineer a giant transition to a capitalist utopia of individual freedoms and entrepreneurship without a social revolution on the streets is yet to be explained. Whether Milei would tolerate anyone who thinks differently is another question to be asked.

The PASO primaries are the first of a series of matches that have the 2023 presidential elections as their ultimate goal. Peronism is trying to figure out its identity – whether Kirchnerism will remain the leading force or a new, moderate post-Kirchnerism will take over. The duality between President Alberto and VP Cristina, the consistent presidential ambitions of Sergio Massa, and provincial disputes throughout the nation are where the battle lines are and will be drawn. Among the opposition, Rodríguez Larreta is trying to consolidate his line of moderates for 2023 but he appears to have been thrown off by the rise of Facundo Manes with Radical support. Will Macri and the hawks make a post-PASO comeback, maybe led by former security minister Patricia Bullrich? They will have to compete with the liberals, whose media appearances suggest they have truly become the third political actor, yet their electoral performance puts them well behind moderates like Randazzo or Roberto Lavagna, and even the leftist socialist parties. There’s a lot yet still to be decided, but even more is up for grabs this weekend.

This piece was originally published in the Buenos Aires Times, Argentina’s only English-language newspaper.

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