Presidential debates regulated by law are a first in
Argentina. They also drag the public back into the
living rooms to partake in another dying practice:
The country’s six presidential candidates (all
male, you may note) debated last Sunday in Santa
Fe. They are scheduled to debate again tomorrow night too. The
rules are strict and allow for no interaction between the candidates. They have only a couple of minutes to
voice their arguments on each designated
The rules could be different. But at the end
of the day the debates have grabbed the attention of voters and jolted the race, which
until now had been dominated by President
Mauricio Macri’s desperate bid to overcome
the walloping defeat he suffered in the August
PASO primaries at the hands of Alberto Fernández, the Peronist candidate leading a
united front of centre-left forces.
Fernández directly criticised the president,
especially by reminding the audience about
Macri’s promises during the 2015 run-off
debate. But eventually the president, as the
show was closing, threw one last jab: don’t you point your finger
at me. The head of state criticised what he described as
Fernández’s constant finger-wagging during the discussion.
The Peronist camp rolled its eyeballs at Macri’s accusation.
That’s the way debates work. For a minute, all that mattered
was if the Peronist candidate had wagged his finger too much.
There were other talking points though. Roberto Lavagna, a
77 year-old moderate economist with a Peronist background,
who is in the race mainly backed by the Socialist Party from
Santa Fe, looked like all energy had been sapped from him as
the contest unfolded. Lavagna, who served as economy minister
from 2002 to 2005 as Argentina pulled itself out of a massive
economic crisis, later confessed that he felt “uncomfortable”
with the rules. He will have to improve in tomorrow’s debate,
especially because another candidate, the neoliberal economics
professor José Luis Espert, showed off his reflexes during the
first showdown. Espert will aim to take votes away from Macri
and, now, a sleepy Lavagna.
The two other candidates who took part in the debate were
the rightist nationalist Juan José Gómez Centurión and the
Trotskyite lawmaker Nicolás Del Caño.
The arguments had some substance though. Notably Alberto
Fernández hinted at a drastic shift in foreign policy when it
comes to the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands sovereignty dispute
with the United Kingdom. Inflation, however, was only a passing
issue and former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner,
Alberto Fernandez’s running-mate, was hardly mentioned.
And so the first debate came and went on Sunday night,
though the arguments about who won it continue. Who did win
it? Who knows? Ultimately that will be revealed when the time
comes to vote on October 27. For now all the rest is speculation.
And speculation is hard work, mostly leading nowhere.
Macri, the leader of centre-right Juntos por el Cambio, is
campaigning hard after the thrashing he suffered in August.
The president’s coalition is scheduled to stage
a massive rally on Avenida 9 de Julio, in the
heart of Buenos Aires City, this afternoon. It
hasn’t even happened yet, but some officials
are already comparing it to the watershed
demonstration held in the same location in
1983 by Raúl Alfonsín, the Radical candidate
who went on to win the presidency. The difference is that Alfonsín was rallying the people
down the road to democracy after a military
dictatorship. Macri is holding the demonstration while already in power and with the
economy broken. The president is shooting
for a turn-out of one million people, hoping
the symbolic impact will make a difference
when the time comes to vote.
Another problem is that some huge negative headlines can’t
be buried by the trailblazing and spinning the president is indulging in. Inflation in September clocked in at 5.9 percent,
INDEC announced this week. That bit of news alone could be
enough to destroy the president’s effort to kick up enough dust
to obnubilate the punishing price hikes, which the government
puts down to political volatility.
There’s other factors too. So far the Spring weather has been
cold and rainy. Parts of Greater Buenos Aires are flooded.
Most Greater Buenos Aires districts are ruled by the
opposition Peronists. But the province itself is run by a
key Macri ally, incumbent Governor María Eugenia Vidal. Will the floods alter the mood of the population that
mostly voted Peronist in August? Again, it’s all part of
Back to that debate. Lavagna was so downcast during
the first debate that there’s now renewed talk that he may
agree to serve in a potential administration led by Alberto Fernández. “It’s the presidency or nothing,” Lavagna
declared this week, seeking to quash further rumours.
All six candidates will have another shot at getting the
debate right tomorrow night. But surely Macri is fully
aware that, with a monthly inflation rate of 5.9 percent
that puts the country in the same league with Zimbabwe,
he is living on the edge.
The future of the centre-right coalition hinges on a win
in Buenos Aires City, its bastion, in order to avoid complete disaster on October 27. Buenos Aires City Mayor
Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, a key member of Macri’s
coalition who is seeking re-election, should be home and
dry. But the City mayor needs to win outright in the first
round to avoid a run-off against his rival Matías Lammens, the young and energetic chairman of the first division football club San Lorenzo, who was handpicked
by Fernández to run as mayor on his ticket.
All candidates can make slips with or without a debate. Macri
himself fumbled in an interview when he compared the debt
situation to a husband leaving a credit card in the hands of his
wife, who then spends and spends, ultimately triggering the
mortgage of their house. Enter Fernández de Kirchner, who has
been comfortably observing the presidential race from the
wings. She hammered Macri by calling him a male chauvinist.
The president was later forced to apologise.
All presidential races are full of little verbal punch-ups. The
difference here is that the candidates are dancing on the deck
of a cruise ship that is US$100 billion in debt and it may not
have the money to pay it off. Also pending is a negotiation with
the International Monetary Fund, which has delayed a US$5.4-
The turning point, October 27, is nearing. And despite the
debates, election night will offer more drama than any debate
ever could. Then someone will begin to nurse one of the biggest
hangovers in the history of Argentine politics.