Argentina’s Crazy Primaries Are Looking Dangerous For President Fernández’s Peronists

The public relations disaster that the Alberto Fernández administration has plunged itself into after the leaking of pictures showing a private celebration in the Olivos residence in the heat of the hardest moments of the Covid-19 lockdown has dominated the news toward the end of the campaign. How angry did it make Cristina Fernández de Kirchner? What impact will it have in the upcoming PASO primaries and the ensuing midterm elections? Who was responsible for leaking the video and how many more images can we expect? How many parties did First Lady Fabiola Yáñez host? Is she pregnant? Is this just “a hatchet job”?

All of these questions and more seemed to bounce around the echo-chamber of the ‘círculo rojo’ group of decision makers composed of businessmen, politicians, artists and other powerful “influencers.” Opinion polls have come out since the pictures circulated indicating most people had seen them – a majority felt angered, disgusted, or simply negatively impacted by it. According to a survey conducted by political consultancy D’Alessio IROL & Berensztein a week after they were released, 24 percent of those who voted for the ruling Frente de Todos in 2019 believe the picture will impact their decision at the ballot box this time around, while nearly four-fifths of those said they would jump ship and support the opposition coalition, Juntos.

The “mother of all battles” in electoral terms is, of course, the Buenos Aires Province, a traditional Peronist bastion where Kirchnerism has “implanted” its power base (originally from Patagonia). There, Axel Kicillof took 52.7 percent of the vote in 2019 to become governor, beating incumbent María Eugenia Vidal (now running in Buenos Aires City) by more than 18 percentage points. President Alberto’s hypocrisy will lower the count in the most populous electoral district of the nation, along with his pseudo-apology in which he blamed his partner Fabiola, and his subsequent backtracking a few days later, filling his mouth with empty words of resilience and resistance. Yet, Alberto was chosen specifically for this reason: he’s the perfect punching bag.

Fernández was handpicked by Cristina in order to defeat Mauricio Macri in the 2019 elections. He was considered a moderate that could tell everyone what they wanted to hear, making him the ideal candidate to build bridges with former enemies and seduce the electorate with the promise of “volveremos, mejores,” which translates roughly onto “we’ll come back [to power], but we’ll be better [than last time].” That same flexibility and superficiality has come back at the pan-Peronist Frente de Todos front in the form of a series of unforced errors that make them look amateurish. Flip-flopping on the Venezuela issue or failing to reach an agreement with Pfizer PFE for Covid-19 vaccines in the midst of a pandemic are key mistakes and part of the opposition’s main arguments during campaign season. But the beauty of being Alberto is that he doesn’t seem to have much of an issue turning the page and carrying on, barely apologizing for whatever just happened. The beauty of being Cristina is that the errors can be pinned on her designated president, allowing her to publicly humiliate him by giving him “advice” in a campaign rally televised on national TV and distance herself from the problem. And the ugly part of being Cristina is that she’s joined at the hip with her former Cabinet Chief, with Alberto as the only power-broker keeping the unstable but unified ruling coalition together. Oh, bother.

In Buenos Aires Province, things are worse than ever, just like in most places of the country. Yet, that’s where many of them are exacerbated, particularly in the Conurbano, or ring of municipalities that encircle the City of Buenos Aires and make up the extended AMBA (Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area). A sustained economic crisis marked by consistent stagflation turbocharged with a global pandemic has pushed millions into poverty, as massive slums continue to grow accelerating problems like crime, drug-trafficking and addiction, and a chronic lack of education and jobs which continues to condemn generations of Argentines.

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A poll conducted by Federico González & Asociados the second week of August — the pictures had been released toward the end of the sample — suggested a tie between the Frente de Todos and Juntos with 27 percent each, with 18.5 percent undecided or suggesting they would cast a blank vote. When extrapolating to project those votes, the ticket led by Victoria Tolosa Paz and Daniel Gollán (Frente de Todos) took 33.1 percent, while the sum of the Juntos tickets (Diego Santilli-María Ocaña and Facundo Manes-Danya Tavella) reached 33 percent. Note the opposition is using the PASO primaries as such, deciding between two competitive candidates. In that projection, non-Kirchnerite Peronist Florencio Randazzo and Carolina Castro took third place with 11.7 percent followed by Liberal José Luis Espert and Carolina Píparo with 6.5 percent. Santilli is expected to overcome Manes with just over 70 percent of the Juntos vote, the poll suggests.

A tie, or even a victory by a relatively small margin will be read as a defeat by the ruling Frente de Todos. Several weeks ago, Perfil’s Rosario Ayerdi reported that within the ranks of the government they were aiming for a “big win” in the province, meaning by over six percentage points. The vote will be determined by the economic expectations of the electorate in the first place (35.7 percent), followed by the situation of crime and safety (24.7 percent), and the management of the pandemic (20.1 percent). Across the globe, incumbents when the pandemic hit have lost elections across the board, while most of Latin American countries are engulfed by deep socio-political crises.

A lot has happened during the campaign. The economy appears to be picking up steam, while the Delta variant suggests Covid promises to make a nasty comeback. The stock market has rallied and the dollar remains relativelt contained. The primaries are just the first part of the fight.

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

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