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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 19-10-2019 12:07

Impact of debate is debatable

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: watching television

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: watching television.

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 issue.

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 the speculation.

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- billion tranche.

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.

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Martín Gambarotta

Martín Gambarotta

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