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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 13-07-2019 09:50

The megalopolis of the metropolis

Greater Buenos Aires is relatively new as a factor in Argentine history. It can be described as really coming into its own with the 1960 census, which for the first time recorded more people as living beyond the city limits as within them – four million as against three million in an Argentina of 20 million people.

Pundits often like to talk of Greater Buenos Aires as if it were some massive pendulum swinging in one direction and inexorably deciding the outcome of every election. But that perception needs to be placed in perspective. Quantitatively it contains around a quarter of the national electorate (and punching even below that weight in Congress where it would account for the equivalent of two of the 72 senators and perhaps 41 of the 257 deputies). And qualitatively it is not an amorphous grey mass of urban sprawl but has a highly complex and varied socio-economic and political geography. So let us start with an anatomy.

The 24 districts of Greater Buenos Aires can roughly be divided into a North Side (eight districts), a West Side (seven) and a South Side (nine) flanking the Federal Capital (East Side is obviously the River Plate).

The North Side has always been the most upmarket of the three – in the last century the western districts tended to be seen as the more impoverished of the poorer cousins but in this century this role has passed increasingly to the South Side with the older industries like meat-packing and tanning (despite or perhaps because of immigrants from the rest of Latin America generally preferring the West Side to the South). But there are no absolute dividing-lines with shantytowns in the richest neighbourhoods and pockets of opulence in the poorest.

Yet there is an alternative tripartite division of GBA into concentric rings or cordons defined by the distance from the Plaza de Mayo heart of the city – an inner ring (or first cordon), a middle ring (second cordon) and an outer (third), which has minimal overlap with the 24 GBA districts. Forming the inner ring are: San Isidro, Vicente López, San Martín, Tres de Febrero, Morón, some of La Matanza, Lomas de Zamora, Lanús and Avellaneda (only 14 of the 24 districts lie wholly within Greater Buenos Aires). While some of these neighbourhoods are poorer than others, most of these people would be better-off than their counterparts in the outer rings (not least when it comes to commuting).

In terms of population, the North Side had 2.38 million people while the South and West Sides had almost identical populations of 3.77 million, according to the 2010 census. La Matanza was by far the most populous district with 1.78 million (close to two million now) while four other districts topped half a million – Lomas de Zamora, Quilmes, Almirante Brown and Merlo (all but the latter on the South Side). The inner ring accounted for almost exactly half the nearly 10 million people counted in GBA by the 2010 census or some 4.97 million.

Now let us look at the North, West and South Sides in more detail separately.

The North Side not only differs from the others in having more affluent neighbourhoods but also from a three-way split in the last two elections rather than polarisation due to Tigre being the base of former Renewal Front leader Sergio Massa (who at one point controlled five of these northern districts and now he does not even control Tigre) – the new polarisation thus shakes things up here more than elsewhere in GBA.

If the opulent riverside districts of Vicente López and San Isidro never changed mayors in all the years of Peronism (there has always been a Posse, Melchor or Gustavo, in the former), they were obviously not going to change in a year of Peronist defeat – both presidential cousin Jorge Macri (PRO) and Gustavo Posse (Radical) were duly re-elected with absolute majorities in 2015 and both seek a further term this year.

Further up the river, San Fernando and Tigre stayed with Massa in 2015, as did San Miguel further inland. Tigre’s Julio Zamora jumped ship to Kirchnerism long before Massa himself (and has now been rewarded with a green light to seek re-election at the expense of Massa’s wife Malena Galmarini) while the more loyal Luis Andreotti is retiring from politics and handing over San Fernando to his son Juan in the style of the Posses in neighbouring San Isidro – all within Frente de Todos, of course. Massa’s 2015 man in San Miguel, Joaquín De La Torre, also jumped ship but not to Kirchnerism, joining the María Eugenia Vidal administration in La Plata in 2016. His heir Jaime Méndez was too centre-right for Kirchnerite tastes (even pro-life) and has been replaced by the Peronist whom De la Torre defeated in 2015, Franco La Porta.

The other three North Side districts figured as Peronist wins in 2015 even if Gabriel Katopidis of General San Martín (which some GBA maps place in the West Side) started his mayoralty in 2011 as a founding member of the Renewal Front when he snatched the district from three-term Radical mayor Ricardo Ivoskus. Otherwise, Mario Ishii is firmly entrenched in José Clemente Paz while the strongly Kirchnerite Leonardo Nardini wrested Malvinas Argentinas in 2015 from the controversial five-term baron Jesús Cariglino, the district’s changeling mayor ever since its creation.

In conclusion, Massa’s return to the Peronist mainstream will mean a big change in the North Side’s political geography, from a three-way split to the polarisation prevailing elsewhere. But there might well be no change in mayoral surname outside San Miguel – perhaps inner-ring General San Martín would be the most vulnerable only if there were a strong pro-Macri swing. It cannot be stressed sufficiently (and this applies everywhere) that these mayoral electoral trends cannot be neatly projected into either presidential or gubernatorial voting since these obey a national rather than local context.

The West Side is dominated by La Matanza, containing almost half its inhabitants but the rest of the West is not so solidly Peronist. Half of the remaining six districts can also be considered Kirchnerite strongholds but Morón and Tres de Febrero (both inner ring) fell to Cambiemos in 2015 – to Vidal’s ex-husband Ramiro Tagliaferro and historian Diego Valenzuela respectively – while Ituzaingó is marginal. In all three cases the 2015 Peronist candidate was problematic responding to 20th more than 21st century politics – Morón’s four-term exCommunist mayor Martín Sabbatella stood to the left of most Kirchnerism, never mind Communism, Tres de Febrero’s Hugo Curto was a traditional trade unionist while Ituzaingó’s Alberto Descalzo (whose narrow 2015 win does not stop him seeking a 7th term now) is one of the last barons. The Mauricio Macri administration might even have more chance of picking up Ituzaingó than retaining Morón and Tres de Febrero, given how acutely the long recession has been felt in Greater Buenos Aires.

Hurlingham’s Juan Zabaleta, Merlo’s Gustavo Menéndez and Moreno’s Walter Festa (all of them Kirchnerites who displaced multiterm Peronist barons in 2015) are all seeking re-election with strong chances. Not so La Matanza’s Verónica Magario for the simple reason that she is the Frente de Todos gubernatorial candidate Axel Kicillof’s running-mate in order to keep a mayoral eye on the leftist economist alien to Greater Buenos Aires politics. But no innovation here – her predecessor Fernando Espinoza will be leaving Congress to seek a fourth term in City Hall.

The South Side is probably the poorest of the three, which does not exclude a number of smart shopping malls and residential areas even here, and nor is the political geography entirely uniform – Quilmes and Lanús are the exceptions to Peronist dominance. The two Cambiemos winners in 2015 had contrasting results – then Federal Capital treasurer Néstor Grindetti won by just 1.4 percent in Lanús while chef Martiniano Molina swept Quilmes by a double-digit margin – but both were helped by their opposition. The traditional Peronist party boss in Quilmes was none other than 2015 gubernatorial candidate Aníbal Fernández, a prime reason behind Vidal’s upset win, while Grindetti was opposed by Julián Alvarez of the La Cámpora youth grouping whose relations with Greater Buenos Aires Peronism were and are notoriously tense. Grindetti undoubtedly faces the more uphill defence of his City Hall (not only due to his smaller margin but also his Panama Papers involvement) but neither district can be considered safe for Macri against a reunited Peronism.

Re-election looks a safer bet for the South Side’s seven Peronist mayors. Florencio Varela’s Julio Pereyra is going for an eighth term while Ezeiza has never known a mayor other than Alejandro Granados who is seeking his seventh. Slightly more modest, Avellaneda’s Jorge Ferraresi (one of the most Kirchnerite) and Esteban Echeverría’s Fernando Gray are both gunning for a third term with strong chances. Martín Insaurralde’s grip on Lomas de Zamora remains intact despite being a rare Peronist loser when heading the Buenos Aires Province Congress list in the 2013 national midterms. Almirante Brown’s Mariano Cascallares is the sole newcomer of this group, regaining only in 2015 Massa’s sole southern bastion in this populous and industrial district. Only in Berazategui will there be no re-election since Patricio Mussi intends to hand City Hall back to his father Juan José – the reverse of the Andreottis in San Fernando.

In conclusion, the incumbent trend looks as firm for mayoral voting as it has been in provincial elections but even here there were upsets in both big (Santa Fe) and small (Tierra del Fuego) provinces so there could be the odd surprise anywhere.

With Buenos Aires province not renewing its senators until 2023, this year’s voting at a legislative level will be limited to the half of the 70 deputies elected in 2015, listed opposite. Note that only 14 of these 35 deputies have been listed by their parties (or by others, as in the case of Sergio Massa’s following) to seek a new term. Those not returning include current Speaker Emilio Monzó, such active and articulate deputies as Eduardo Amadeo, Daniel Lipovetzky and the Peronist Diego Bossio and La Cámpora’s Mayra Mendoza (mayoral candidate in Quilmes).

Greater Buenos Aires is relatively new as a factor in Argentine history. It can be described as really coming into its own with the 1960 census, which for the first time recorded more people as living beyond the city limits as within them – four million as against three million in an Argentina of 20 million people. This milestone was preceded by three decades of steady influx starting with the Great World Depression of 1929 giving rise to rural exodus and the creation of import substitution industries.

In colonial times settlement beyond city boundaries was limited to a smugglers’ port in Tigre. San Fernando, La Matanza, Morón and San Isidro all date back to just before or during the independence period (1810-1816). At the other end of the historical scale six districts were only created in the last quarter-century: Ezeiza, Hurlingham, Ituzaingó, José Clemente Paz, Malvinas Argentinas and San Miguel. The others originate between these two book-ends with all of them dating from the pre-democratic (pre-1914) period except Lanús (1944), Tres de Febrero (1959) and Berazetegui (1960). For a more personal account of the evolution in these districts, the charming vignettes of Maud Cox’s Testimonios del antiguo pueblo de San Martín (previously reviewed in this newspaper) bring her birthplace to life, going back to its beginnings (in 1864, together with Merlo and Moreno).

By the time you read today’s concluding column of this series, I will be in Europe. Nothing more from me until after my return on the eve of the PASO primaries when I will be starting a new series related to this year’s elections. Thank you for reading.

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Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.

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