Sunday, November 17, 2019
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ARGENTINA | 17-08-2019 10:46

A week is a long time in politics

President Mauricio Macri’s PASO loss to Alberto Fernández has dramatically altered Argentina’s political landscape.

It was just before 11am when Mauricio Macri faced the reporters, who were eagerly fishing for a quote. Minutes earlier he had smiled for the cameras as he cast his vote at a school in Palmero.

“We hope to continue with this reform and this profound change. Others want other things,” he told them obligingly.

“What happens today is very important. The markets expect the Argentines to continue on the same path, the world hopes for that.” Flanked by his wife, First Lady Juliana Awada, the president added with a flourish: “This election defines the next 30 years.”

Less than 12 hours later, as Argentines across the country sat in front of their TV screens , phones and laptops, awaiting the delayed provisional results of the PASO primary elections, Macri was preparing to take to the stage at Juntos por el Cambio’s bunker in Costa Salguero.

The president’s mood was very different and the balloons had been put away. He wasn’t going to wait for the first numbers to be revealed.

Flanked onstage by key members of his coalition, including his vice-presidential running-mate Miguel Ángel Pichetto, Buenos Aires Province Governor María Eugenia Vidal and Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, the president spoke to a crowd of supporters, who just minutes earlier had been chanting “Si, se puede,” celebrating the Buenos Aires City mayor’s victory over Frente de Todos candidate Matías Lammens.

The tone at Costa Salguero, however, was about to turn from celebrations to commiserations.

“We have had a very bad election,” Macri said. “It hurts that we have not had all the support we expected.” Things weren’t looking good for the president. And they were about to get a whole lot worse.

 

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On the other side of town, in Chacarita, things were becoming frenzied.

In images beamed across the news channels, the car carrying Alberto Fernández was surrounded as it arrived at the Frente de Todos bunker. Smiling widely, he high-fived and shook hands with supporters as the vehicle inched its way past the crowd.

Inside the venue, Peronist militants were chanting “Vamos a volver” and derogatory songs about Mauricio Macri. Everyone present was awaiting the arrival of the man of the hour.

All of sudden, WhatsApp messages began to arrive in the group chats, sparking shock, celebrationand dismay.

The primaries were expected to be a close-fought battle, with many polls having tipped Fernández to come out on top by a margin of a few points. But, as the official results came in, it became clear that something entirely different was happening.

Fernández was leading the president by an extensive lead, the provisional count revealed. Former economy minister Axel Kicillof, the Frente de Todos candidate for governor of Buenos Aires Province, had garnered nearly half of the entire votes in the nation’s most-populous region, defeating Vidal. As the results became known, provinceby-province – with the exception of Córdoba and Buenos Aires City – Juntos por el Cambio had lost.

On average, the Frente de Todos ticket had taken an average of 30 percent more votes in provinces such as Chaco, Catamarca, Corrientes, Formosa, Río Negro, Salta, San Juan, Tierra del Fuego and Tucumán. In other parts of the country, the average gap between the two top tickets was around 20 points, with 97.5 percent of votes counted.

“It’s a day of much happiness, full of emotion, because you all know it was a very unequal campaign,” Kicillof told supporters as he took the stage, following brief speeches by Máximo Kirchner and Sergio Massa, the runaway kid who’d decided to team up with Kirchnerismo once again.

All eyes, however, were on Fernández, who took to the stage with his voice breaking as he celebrated victory.

“We are going to fix what the others have broken,” he declared to cheers.

“Argentina has realised that the change is us, not them,” Fernández said, referencing Macri’s Juntos por el Cambio coalition, formerly known as Cambiemos (“Let’s Change”).

“To those who recommended that we go to sleep, please ask them not to sleep anymore, because they have been sleeping a long time and have generated a huge problem for us,” he added with a twist, ribbing the president, who had told his supporters at the end of his own speech to get some rest.

As the dust settled, the final numbers would be even more dramatic. In the two key races, Frente de Todos had recorded huge victories. For Fernández and his runningmate, former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, 47.65 percent. For Macri and Pichetto 32.08percent. A lead of more than 15 points.

For Kiciloff, in the “mother of all battles,” 52.5 percent. For Vidal, 34.6 percent.

There was little doubt that the president would not get much sleep that night.

 

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On TV screens, analysts burst into life, attempting to explain how the pollsters and predictions had been so wrong. Everyone strived to settle on a specific reason – the economy, inflation, poverty, a combination of all that, nostalgia even – but for the most part, everyone was in shock.

Some called for order, many declared Fernández the presidentelect, others said the two presidential hopefuls must get together at once.

The financial analysts were all agreed on one thing, however, whatever the channel. The markets were going to tank on Monday morning.

 

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As night turned to day, the first murmurings of turbulence were beginning to be heard online, where the peso was already depreciating against the dollar, pushing close to 50.

At the Casa Rosada, officials including Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña, had arrived early. Soon after President Mauricio Macri arrived by helicopter, calling a meeting of his economic Cabinet.

Then the markets opened. PostPASO turbulence hit quickly, pushing the dollar above 65 pesos in some banks, soaring from 46.55 at the Friday close Friday while the MerValL, an index of the Buenos Aires stock exchange’s most important stocks, dropped 37 percent. It kept going.

“The president cannot have peace of mind. The markets are giving a warning that the government has put itself in a position it cannot respond to,” Fernández told a local radio station. Kicillof called on the government to act with “responsibility.”

Traders were already calling it “Black Monday.”

As afternoon arrived, government officials came out to face the press. María Eugenia Vidal held a press conference to nominally talk about her loss in Buenos Aires Province.

“Yesterday’s election is telling us that we have to listen more. Bettering what there is to better and correcting what there is to correct,” she told the press.

“It would not be a very serious self-criticism if I said something today,” Vidal said, when pressed by reporters on the reason for the loss. “We need more time to reflect.”

Most eyes were on the Casa Rosada, however. Roughly an hour later, the president emerged, flanked by Pichetto, to take questions.

“Every election is a message and we understand it,” he told the press, but it was clear he had little interest in debating what the message was.

Agitated and irritated, Macri declared his government would take measures to try and stabilise the peso but gave no details. Clearly sleep-deprived and angry, he turned his ire on the opposition.

“Kirchnerismo has no credibility in the world,” he said, saying the turbulence in the markets was the result of “what they did before.”

“I don’t manage the markets, the markets are people who decide [whether] to invest,” he snapped.

There was a new reality, but the president wasn’t ready to accept it just yet.

 

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Later that night, Alberto Fernández gave an interview with with NET TV’s Corea del Centro programme.

The Frente de Todos candidate was vague on what policies he would enact should he win election in October and he, in turn, trained his fire on Macri.

“Macri didn’t understand anything and he will continue to do the same, despite the fact that two-thirds of Argentina’s population rejected the government,” he declared. “He deserved the punishment of the people.”

Every comment now was being closely watched by the markets and investors, who were becoming increasingly troubled by the militancy of both sides. Both were still in campaign mode.

But thankfully, a turnaround was on the way.

On Wednesday, the president faced the press and offered a mea culpa for his angry performance on Monday. “I was still very affected by the result of Sunday,” he admitted.

Macri said he “deeply respected the Argentines who voted for other alternatives” in the PASOS. He thenunveiled a raft of announcements, declaring that he “understood” the difficulties facing Argentines and that he was taking steps to help “alleviate” their economic pain.The measures could have been ripped straight from a Peronist handbook.

Later that day – after Fernández told the press he ignored a call from the president because he was teaching classes – the president posted a message on Twitter.

“Recently we had a good and long telephone conversation with Alberto Fernández,” he wrote. “He pledged to collaborate on all possible so that this electoral process, and the political uncertainty that it generates, affects as little as possible the economy of Argentines.”

A page had been turned. The markets, in turn, calmed a little, though not enough to regain the losses. Bloomberg called it a “deadcat bounce” – in other words, a small recovery after a substantial fall.

 

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With the dust now settled, a new reality has emerged, one in which many view the Peronist challenger as a virtual president-elect. There are still races to run, but both sides at the end of a painful week seem more aware of the impact of their words, declarations and behaviour.

Everyone, however, is adjusting to the new scheme of things, not just the politicians. For many Argentines, the impact will be felt in the pocket. Purchasing-power, already drastically sapped by runaway inflation (more than 50 percent over the last 12 months), will again take a dramatic hit this month. Poverty, already at around 32 percent, will rise as well. Unemployment likely too.

And what about that race in October? By most accounts, it is over. The president faces a near insurmountable lead and an opposition in the ascendancy. But then, as we’ve seen, a week is a long time in politics. Let alone two months.

James Grainger

James Grainger

Editor-in-Chief, Buenos Aires Times.

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