Argentina goes to the ballot box tomorrow to choose new lawmakers, but with much more on the line than that: This Sunday’s vote will also determine President Alberto Fernández's ability to govern effectively for the remaining two years of his term, one marked so far by economic hardship worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.
The mandatory vote for nearly half the lower house Chamber of Deputies and a third of the Senate follows on from the PASO primaries back in September, in which Fernández's ruling centre-left Frente de Todos coalition took a battering.
In shock results two months ago, the Peronist front garnered only about a third of votes cast compared to 37 percent for the centre-right opposition group, Juntos por el Cambio, the coalition led by former president Mauricio Macri.
The primaries, which picked candidates for Sunday's elections, revealed deep-seated disillusionment with the government and the president, who said afterwards that "we must have done something not right."
The outcome also unleashed a political crisis, pitting Fernández against his powerful vice-president and coalition partner, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The former president, who led the nation between 2007 and 2015, pressured her boss into a Cabinet reshuffle in the hopes it would help appease an increasingly-frustrated electorate. According to the pollsters, it has made little difference.
Frente de Todos has 120 of 257 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, with 124 up for grabs on Sunday. The ruling coalition holds a majority of 41 out of 72 seats in the upper house, which it will be eager to maintain, although analysts believe this is unlikely.
"If the results of the PASO [September's primary] are repeated, the ruling party could lose its majority in the Senate," said political analyst Rosendo Fraga of the Nueva Mayoría think-tank. "Not only would it not achieve a majority... but also lose seats."
"It is possible for the government to improve this election, but not substantially," said Fraga.
In the opinion of this analyst, "the central political problem will be, whatever the result, the division in the ruling party between the president and the vice-president. This dispute will continue and may even worsen.”
Critically, the opposition made great strides back in September in Buenos Aires Province, the country's largest electoral district and considered a bastion of Peronist support.
Fernández took power from Macri in 2019. But public discontent with his government has been growing: Argentina has been in recession since 2018 and registered a drop in GDP of 9.9 percent last year amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The country has one of the world's highest inflation rates, running at 40 percent so far this year, and a poverty rate of 42 percent for a population of 45 million.
Last month, the government announced a deal with the private sector to freeze prices on more than 1,400 basic goods, following street protests demanding greater food subsidies. It has also increased the minimum wage and family allowances.
The defeat in September’s primaries was "a punishment for Alberto Fernández's administration," said political scientist Carlos Fara, who described it as a consequence of "the economic impact that was generated between what he inherited [from the previous government] and what was produced by the pandemic."
Speaking at his coalition’s closing campaign rally in Merlo this week, President Fernández asked voters to help him “build the dream of living in the Argentina that we deserve."
Vowing to ensure that "growth reaches every Argentine," the Peronist leader said he would continue working for every citizen.
"In the two years that remain, I am going to give up all of myself,” he promised.
No ‘unbeatable’ centres
Argentina is seeking to renegotiate a US$57-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund of which it has received US$44 billion that it is having a tough time repaying.
Sunday's vote will serve as a bellwether for the next presidential election in 2023, but also threatens to tie Fernández's hands for the next two years.
If the opposition makes gains and obtains legislative blocking power, "it will most probably use it," said analyst Gabriel Puricelli of the University of Buenos Aires.
A defeat for the government could “put a brake on Kirchnerism in both chambers” and compel the ruling coalition to negotiate and make concessions if it wants to pass laws or make key appointments, including to the Judiciary, said Fara.
Mario Riorda, a political scientist and academic with the Universidad Austral, said the Frente de Todos has lost 19 electoral points countrywide since 2019" and that the Peronist coalition no longer has unbeatable centres" of power left in the country.
In terms of support, he added, the opposition "has practically not moved from its last national figure."
The second half of Fernández's term will take place "in a very complex balance of internal tensions that could jeopardise governability," he warned.
"The composition of the Congress that emerges from these elections will determine the conditions of governability" until 2023, when Fernández's term ends, said Puricelli.
But they are also "a test of the viability of the two main coalitions as a vehicle for the next presidential elections," he added.
Opposition says ‘enough’
Argentina’s opposition leaders are certainly encouraged, feeling that this is the chance for a major congressional breakthrough.
At the opposition’s flagship event in the nation’s capital, candidate for lawmaker María Eugenia Vidal closed her campaign with a call to arms for citizens to “shout louder” and say “enough is enough” to the government.
Vidal – who was joined by top coalition leaders including Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, PRO party president Patricia Bullrich and former president Mauricio Macri – reminded voters of a number of the government’s missteps during the coronavirus pandemic, highlighting in particular the ‘VIP vaccination’ scandal, the secret party at the Olivios presidential residence and school closures during the virus crisis.
"We are millions and we are going to build a safe place for the next two years and offer an alternative in 2023," she declared.
"These are decisive elections – Kirchnerism’s power is at stake," she concluded.
The opposition's main candidates in Buenos Aires Province, Diego Santilli and Facundo Manes, echoed a similar tone, telling supporters in La Plata that voters could "change history on Sunday."
Macri, speaking to the TN news channel midweek, forecast that Kirchnerism is "going to have a collapse" on Monday, after the election's results become clear.
"On Monday, we are going to have a collapse of this version of Peronism," he said. "Peronism is going to have to reinvent itself and take out the part that has been kidnapped by Kirchnerism."
He said he hoped the vote would “re-consolidate hope for the future, and above all, the value of dignity and freedom.”