February 9, 2021

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ARGENTINA: How vaccines, the economy, and elections fit together

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 3 mins)

The 2021 electoral process involves obligatory party primaries scheduled for 8 August followed by partial legislative mid-terms on 24 October. The mid-terms will not just determine governability in the second half of President Alberto Fernandez’s administration, but will also lay down markers for the 2023 presidential contest. The idea of a change to the 2021 timetable has been circulating for weeks. The discussion, whose outcome is uncertain, reflects a combination of economic calculations, as well as vaccine and health considerations, that shed some light on the current political situation.

Three options have been floated:

1) cancel the primaries (known as the Open, Simultaneous and Obligatory Primaries, or PASO) but stick with the October vote.

2) postpone both the PASO (to the end of September or beginning of October) and the legislative vote (to the end of November).

3) combine both primaries and elections in a single event (probably in October) using some form of double simultaneous voting, in which voters indicate their party of choice as well as their preferred candidate within the party.

The rationale for a timetabling change is on health grounds. Specifically, the slow start to the vaccine rollout has raised concerns about holding two mass electoral events in relatively quick succession, the first in Argentina’s mid-winter. The original plan was to receive up to 20mn Sputnik V doses over January-February. So far, under 165,000 people have been fully vaccinated. The situation is set to improve in the coming weeks. Sputnik V deliveries are supposed to get back on track from next week, a contract with China’s Sinopharm for 1mn doses has now been signed, and a first delivery of 580,000 AZ doses is scheduled for 15 February. Nonetheless, supply bottlenecks have made the election timetable discussion more urgent.

The corollary issue is that vaccine difficulties risk impeding economic reactivation, which the government needs to be in evidence before August. The slower the vaccine rollout, the weaker the recovery will look. A new International Monetary Fund (IMF) deal – if it is reached by then – cannot be the government’s main “win” heading into the election. This explains, in passing, why the government is now pushing a tax reform initiative that would raise the threshold at which income tax is payable, which its chief sponsor, Sergio Massa, sees as giving a lift to the middle class and consumer confidence. The opposition is fully aware of the economic imperative behind the election discussion, which is why the Republican Proposal (PRO) party has outright rejected a cancelation of the PASO and accused the government of running scared.

Opposition to option 1 runs deeper than the PRO. None other than Maximo Kirchner is also opposed to any suppression of the PASO because he wants to use the primaries to displace traditional Peronists with loyalists from the grouping he leads, La Campora, as a stepping-stone to 2023. This would leave the option 1 route all but closed off. The PRO and its allies also squarely oppose option 3. That leaves option 2 – a postponement of both ballots – as the most likely to advance, especially as the opposition Radicals (UCR) had previously proposed pushing the PASO into September. The success of the vaccine program over the coming weeks, combined with the economic situation, will determine whether the idea gains ground.

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