Tight Buenos Aires victory slightly complicates Macri’s presidential hopes

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In one of the most important tests before Argentina’s general election, the hand-picked successor of outgoing Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri, the chief center-right presidential candidate, only narrowly won a July 19 mayoral runoff.buenosairesargentina

Just three weeks out from Argentina’s crucial national presidential primary, the Buenos Aires mayoral results are being reported as a drag on Macri’s presidential campaign, and that’s true — to a degree. Macri’s long-serving chief of cabinet, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta (pictured above, left, with Macri, right), garnered just 51.6% of the vote in a two-way race he was once expected to win easily by a double-digit margin. So while Rodríguez Larreta’s victory extends a three-term governing streak for Macri’s conservative Propuesta Republicana (PRO, Republican Proposal), it fell too far short of expectations. After all, Buenos Aires is the PRO’s heartland — Macri’s reach barely extends beyond the city to the larger Buenos Aires province, let alone the rest of the country.

With an open presidential primary taking place on August 9, however, and the October 25 presidential and parliamentary elections following shortly thereafter, the city’s mayoral election was a key test for Macri, who is trying to succeed Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, herself term-limited from seeking reelection.

Macri essentially occupies the conservative side of the presidential campaign — he hopes to win by picking up support from Argentine moderates and disenchanted kirchneristas without seeming too neoliberal. The winner of the 2015 election will be the first president in 12 years not to be a member of the Kirchner family, and Argentine voters may be ready for a modest change after the 21st century version of peronismo, as personified by the late Néstor Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who hopes to guide the ruling Frente para la Victoria (FpV, the Front for Victory) to yet another term.

Macri, for his part, wants to contrast the strength of his eight-year stewardship of the relatively wealthier city against the record of the FpV’s 2015 presidential candidate, Daniel Scioli, since 2007 the governor of the surrounding (and more impoverished) Buenos Aires province, and of Tigre mayor Sergio Massa, another center-left peronista who broke in 2013 with kirchnerismo to form the Frente Renovador (FR, Renewal Front).

It’s no surprise, by the way, that three politicians from the Buenos Aires region are vying for the presidency — the city, an autonomous federal district, together with the Buenos Aires province, is home to nearly 50% of Argentina’s 41.5 million citizens.

Argentina’s Goldilocks election

All three candidates — Scioli, Massa and Macri — have indicated they would pursue a more investment-friendly administration, and Macri, in particular, benefits from heading the most business-friendly government during the Kirchner era.

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Macri nevertheless emphasizes that he’ll introduce only gradual shifts in policy, lest voters worry he’ll return to the economic policies of the disastrous 1990s.

Presumably to win Fernández de Kirchner’s support, Scioli last month named as his running mate Carlos Zannini, a fierce Kirchner loyalist who has served as the president’s legal secretary since 2003. But Scioli has emphasized that he wants to remove, however slowly, the capital controls of the Kirchner era, and to govern in a less interventionist and inflammatory manner.

Massa has positioned himself in between Scioli and Macri and, though his poll numbers seem to have dipped, seemed like the wide frontrunner following his breakout performance throughout Buenos Aires province in the October 2013 midterm elections.

Why the Buenos Aires mayoral race probably
won’t be important to the October election

While there are a lot of reasons why Macri could still lose the presidential race, it’s not particularly clear that either Scioli and the governing FpV or the upstart Massa should take too much comfort from the Buenos Aires mayoral election.

Massa’s candidate didn’t even amass the 1.5% support in the earlier April primaries to qualify for the mayoral vote. The kirchnerista candidate finished in third place in the initial July 5 election, pushed out by Martín Lousteau, a national deputy and Fernández de Kirchner’s first economy minister between 2007 and 2008. Lousteau, who was forced out as economy minister after supporting an increase in agricultural taxes (which was met with fierce backlash and eventually abandoned by the Kirchner government), now belongs to a small party that is part of the multi-party Cambiemos coalition that Macri is widely expected to lead into the October elections.

So while Rodríguez Larreta’s narrow margin of victory on July 19 is disappointing to Macri, as is the fact that he lost nine out of 15 Buenos Aires’s communes, it’s hard to say that either the pro-Kirchner or the anti-Kirchner wings of the peronista left have made incredible inroads into PRO territory.

Making sense of August’s jungle primary

What’s more, the results of the August 9 primary will almost certainly reset expectations for the final two months of the campaign. Under Argentina’s electoral system, parties (or coalitions) choose their candidates in a single primary for which voting is compulsory. That means that Macri will not only be competing with his own rivals for the Cambiemos nomination, but he’ll also be directly competing with Scioli and Massa to telescope the strength of his political appeal for October.

Macri founded PRO only in 2005 as a loose center-right alliance, and it became a formal party only five years ago. But the larger Cambiemos coalition includes the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR, Radical Civic Union), a longstanding anti-peronismo party that’s been in Argentine politics since the 1890s and the Coalición Cívica (Civic Coalition), another centrist party founded in 2007 by Elisa Carrió, an attorney, former beauty queen and a national deputy first elected in 1995. In the August 9 primary, Macri will compete against both Carrió and Ernesto Sanz, a Mendoza senator, for the coalition’s nomination. Macri is widely expected to win, but Carrió and Sanz could bring down Macri’s aggregate vote total.

Though Scioli is running unopposed for the FpV’s nomination, he will certainly lose some share of the vote to the Renewal Front. Massa, who will face the longtime governor of Córdoba province, José Manuel de la Sota, for the Renewal Front’s nomination, will simultaneously be competing with Scioli for disillusioned leftist votes and with Macri (and Carrió and Sanz) to become the chief alternative to what amounts to reelection for the FpV.

Making matters even more awkward, while Lousteau is ostensibly part of the same coalition as Macri, he endorsed Sanz in the primary after his narrow mayoral defeat. Lousteau added that if Macri wins the coalition’s presidential nomination, as widely expected, he will instead support Margarita Stolbizer, yet another center-left candidate who typically polls in fourth place behind the three major candidates.

Kirchner’s lingering popularity could win the day

Under kirchnerismo, Argentina embraced default as a strategy to emerge from its 1999-2001 financial crisis, and the country remains locked in a legal battle with US-based hedge fund managers about a lingering $2 billion chunk of the country’s debt. Shut out from global bond markets, Fernández de Kirchner has taken to nationalizing everything from Argentine pension plans to the national oil company in the search for proceeds to finance the country’s deficits. That, in turn, left the country with perilously low foreign reserves, a weakening currency, divergence between the peso‘s official value and its unofficial ‘blue dollar’ value, galloping inflation and just middling GDP growth since Fernández de Kirchner’s reelection in 2011. Moreover, the mysterious death earlier this year of Alberto Nisman, a prosecutor seeking to indict Fernández de Kirchner for allegedly conspiring with Iran to cover up the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center, cast doubt on the rule of law.

More recently, however, a stabilizing economy has buoyed Fernández de Kirchner’s approval ratings and the chances for the FpV — in the span of a few months, Scioli has displaced Massa as the frontrunner for the presidency. That, ultimately, may be more of a challenge for Macri than the margin of his successor’s victory in Buenos Aires, especially if Scioli and Massa convince voters that Macri represents a return to the market-oriented policies of Carlos Menem, who governed Argentina from 1989 to 1999.

Adding to the strategic complexity of Argentina’s election, if no candidate wins either (i) 45% or more of the total vote or (ii) at least 40% of the total vote and a 10% lead against the second-placed candidate, voters will choose between the top two finalists in a November 22 runoff. Polls today show that Macri and Scioli would advance to such a runoff, and that dynamic (with Massa’s backers presumably falling in line under Macri as the candidate of the broad peronista left) favors the kirchneristas.

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