Time flies, except when it doesn’t. The presidential
election, scheduled to take place on Sunday, October 27, is less than a month away, yet it feels so
distant. Argentina suddenly is a land of many
transitions. President Maurcio Macri was thrashed by his Peronist rival, Alberto Fernández, in
the August presidential primaries. Now the country is in a
transition between that shocker of a primary and the vote
later this month. The situation has drained banks of greenbacks
and delayed a pending injection of US$5.4 billion from the
International Monetary Fund (IMF). When the votes are counted and the result is known, the landscape will shift dramatically and a new transition will begin. Time is money. You bet.
For Argentina’s Central Bank, each day in this transition is
costing a fortune. And its money can run
out, triggering an implosion.
Macri’s centre-right coalition is in trouble.
But the president is not giving up. Macri, in
his latest campaign ad, addresses voters,
saying that he has heard them and that they
are right to be angry. His camp hopes that
voters will “rethink” their decision. Buenos
Aires Province Governor María Eugenia
Vidal, who was also routed by her Peronist
own rival, Axel Kicillof, in a huge upset in
August, is following the same line, declaring
‘If you don’t give up, neither will I.’
Macri recently headed a large demonstration in Barrancas
de Belgrano, an upmarket neighbourhood in Buenos Aires
City (his bastion), and is now touring the country in a whirlwind
bid to whip up some momentum. On his tour, the president –
delivering chirpy speeches from makeshift stages in town
squares but on the verge of losing his voice – is urging his
supporters to convince others to change their vote and engage
in discusssions on social media networks. The president’s rivals
are guffawing though. Sergio Massa, a prominent member of
the Peronist front, quipped that the president has embarked
on a “farewell tour.” Maybe he has. But it ain’t over until it’s
over — even when this race feels practically over.
At times Macri looks as if he’s hooked on being a candidate.
But in reality he is the president. The president is delivering
campaign promises, like breaks on employer contributions for
small companies next year, behaving like he is not the man in
charge. But he is and the facts are catching up. The poverty
rate now stands at a little over 35 percent. Macri won the presidential election in 2015 promising “zero poverty.” The rate is
now higher than what it was four years ago. To boot, September’s
inflation rate will be another punishing reminder to voters that
maybe there is no rethinking to be done.
Amid the bleakness, there was a ray of light for Juntos por
el Cambio this week. The president’s coalition convincingly
won the gubernatorial election in Mendoza on Sunday, defeating the Peronist candidate (a Kirchnerite with direct access
to former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner). But was
Macri the real winner here? The local Radical bosses in Mendoza won. Read deeper into the result and what you find is
that the president is no longer on good terms with the Radical
Party winners in Mendoza, even though they are technically
part of the ruling coalition. The president was not invited to
the celebrations,but guess who was? Martín Lousteau, a oncecherubic economist now with the Radicals who could eventually, one day, shoot for the presidency. He flew to Mendoza
to take part in the festivities.
Back to the president’s tour which, granted, may turn out
to be useless. But at least this round of
campaigning could help Juntos por el Cambio hold on to its bastion, Buenos Aires
City. Macri’s candidate in Buenos Aires
City, incumbent Mayor Horacio Rodríguez
Larreta, needs to win with 50 percent of the
vote to avoid a run-off against Frente de
Todos’ Matías Lammens.
Macri, who now sees himself as a crusader of market-friendly reforms on the trail,
is seeking to “turn the election around.”
Meanwhile, Alberto Fernández – his Peronist rival who has Fernández de Kirchner
as his vote-winning running-mate – is behaving more and
more like a head of state. The frontrunner met with the leaders
of the UIA Argentine industrial union this week to consider
future policies. He said he was delighted with the outcome of
the meeting.Wait. Alberto Fernández has not won just yet, has
he? If you ask Argentina’s industrialists, he will. The UIA, a
lobby that has always disliked foreign competition, seems to
have lost all hope in Macri.
The Supreme Court, meanwhile, thumped the president
with a ruling in favour of a claim from the
nation’s provinces that the recently announced IVA/VAT deductions cannot bite into
provincial revenue. Macri administration
officials said the Supreme Court ruling was
unusual, coming in the middle of a presidential campaign. It’s another sign that Macri is
waddling about in lame-duck territory.
The meetings Alberto Fernández is holding are nothing more than preliminary rehearsals for what is to come. The Peronist
candidate’s strategy now is to act like a
president. But there are two presidential
debates slated ahead of October 27 and they
will be testing. The debates could jolt voters
into realising that, no, Alberto Fernández is
not yet their president.
There’s speculation that if he wins, the
new head of state will call for a social agreement with business leaders and trade unions
to freeze salaries and prices for 180 days.
The new administration will have to pull that
off in a land where strikes are very common,
however. The latest round of industrial action was called by pilots of Aerolíneas Argentinas, the state-run airline, who are demanding a wage hike to compensate for
rocketing inflation. The novelty is that Fernández, who has
the endorsement of the trade unions, has urged the pilots not
to strike. The pilots told the candidate to get lost.
The spat is perhaps evidence that the opposition candidate
is not keen on agitation and of the complete implosion of the
Macri administration. It’s a big shift, at least for now, from
the merciless mauling of Raúl Alfonsín, the Radical president
who was forced to hand over power before the end of his
presidential mandate in 1989, after losing to the Peronists
with the country engulfed by the flames of hyperinflation.
The pilots’ defiance, driven by the fact that all salaries have
been effectively pulverised by the price hikes, shows that
hammering out a deal in 2020 will not be easy. Good luck with
that social pact, Mr Fernández.