September 1, 2021

Latam

ARGENTINA: Ruling coalition outwardly united but limping towards primary vote

BY Nicholas Watson

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Party primaries (known as the Open, Simultaneous and Obligatory Primaries, or PASO) take place on 12 September. These are the prelude to the 14 November partial legislative mid-term elections, in which half of the lower house and one-third of the Senate will be renewed. Since voting in the primaries is obligatory, the PASO acts as a fairly accurate – though not infallible – opinion poll or election dress rehearsal two months ahead of the actual vote.

Recent polls offer little clarity as to the state of the parties; some suggest the governing Front for All (FdT) coalition is ahead of the opposition Together for Change (JxC) coalition, others suggest the opposite, and still others put them in a technical tie. The uncertainty reflects a combination of the usual political bias of some pollsters; voter reticence to participate in surveys, which likely reflects public disillusionment and disinterest in the vote; and the local polling industry’s own crisis of confidence after the notorious failure to predict the 2019 PASO outcome, in which President Alberto Fernandez unexpectedly trounced then-president Mauricio Macri.

However, the circumstances in which the FdT goes into the PASO are highly problematic. With the recent Olivosgate ” scandal, Fernandez, who Vice-President Cristina Fernandez (CFK) originally tapped to broaden her appeal to the centerground, has become more of a liability than an asset. The scandal over Fernandez’s flouting of Covid rules brings back memories of another scandal from earlier this year – the revelations that a group of officials, government allies, and the well- connected secretly received Covid-19 vaccines in violation of eligibility rules. The disregard for rules and cronyism that these episodes reveal will accrete to existing layers of public frustration over lengthy school closures and a stuttering vaccine rollout.

The state of the economy is an even bigger headache. As much as Fernandez talks up the economic recovery and the government tries to generate a feelgood factor with tax relief and other measures, the reality is that full recovery is a long way off. Poverty levels remain high, as do unemployment and underemployment. The loss of purchasing power caused by persistent inflation is probably the FdT’s biggest vulnerability. These issues hit the all- important Buenos Aires province hardest.

The FdT’s challenges do not end here. The historical precedent is not good for Kirchnerismo , which has lost ground in the last three mid-term votes; to reverse that trend during a pandemic and economic crisis would be an extraordinary achievement amid the region’s anti-incumbent tendency and with the FdT campaign misfiring. It could be that voters are not yet ready to put their trust in the opposition, which anyway goes into the PASO divided. Covid concerns could also cause turnout to drop (despite voting being obligatory). However, disenchanted Peronists in Buenos Aires province have the dissident former minister Florencio Randazzo as an alternative option. The lesson of 2015 is that even if the FdT succeeds in finishing two or three points ahead in the PASO, it could go on to lose in the elections proper, especially if CFK becomes more prominent between the PASO and the November vote. All this explains why government officials now say they would be satisfied if they obtain only a minimal advantage in the bellwether Buenos Aires provincial PASO. However, even that may be out of reach.

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