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ARGENTINA | 17-11-2023 07:24

Argentina’s heartland shows quandary of election choice few want

Argentina’s electoral dilemma is arguably felt most acutely in Cordoba, where 1.2 million voters opted for neither of the candidates in the run-off — the highest percentage of any district in the country.

Marcela Moreno, a preschool teacher in the central province of Córdoba, voted for libertarian economist Javier Milei in last month’s presidential election. With days to the run-off, she’s having cold feet.

“Oh, God, what have I done?” said Moreno, 47, leaving work to catch the bus in her school apron. Moreno thinks she’ll vote for Milei again because she wouldn’t support the current government — but fears her school could shutter if he follows through on his pledge to take a chainsaw to Argentina’s sprawling state budget to thwart triple-digit inflation.

“It’s horrible to vote like this,” she said on a recent hot, dry afternoon as her city of Jesús María, born of a Jesuit settlement now surrounded by fields of corn and soy, slept its siesta

Argentines are waking up to a choice they’d rather not have to make this Sunday. On one side is Economy Minister Sergio Massa of the incumbent Peronist party, which has been in power for most of the past two decades and whose record includes inflation running at 143 percent that’s left four-in-every-10 Argentines in poverty. 

Then there’s Milei, an untested outsider with radical solutions like ditching the peso for the dollar and closing the Central Bank that some economists warn could tip Argentina into hyperinflation and further social unrest.

It’s an unenviable choice that will determine Argentina’s fate as it struggles to beat a path out of a grinding economic crisis that threatens to engulf the nation of some 46 million. The election also resonates beyond its borders, with ramifications in neighbouring countries including regional heavyweight Brazil and the outcome setting the tone for Latin America as the United States and China vie for influence.

Argentina’s electoral dilemma is arguably felt most acutely in Córdoba, where 1.2 million voters opted for neither of the candidates in the run-off — the highest percentage of any district in the country. In a race that’s neck-and-neck, those ballots may hold the key to the presidency.  

Massa scored 37 percent to Milei’s 30 percent in the first round nationally, and each is now vying to win over the remaining third of the electorate who went with less polarizing options. That means overcoming negative ratings of around 50 percent for both candidate and wooing the voters of Patricia Bullrich.

Bullrich carried the hopes of Argentina’s moderates and business leaders with orthodox pro-market policies, many of them in Córdoba. But a poor campaign rife with infighting left her bloc out of the running – and her supporters unsure which way to turn, despite her subsequent endorsement of Milei.

Shaking his head, the mayor of Jesús María, Luis Picat, says he drove over 12,000 miles campaigning for Bullrich “for nothing.” Milei, who tapped the youth vote through viral TikTok videos that channeled their frustration, had an answer to inflation, the main problem putting a chokehold on every person and business; the main failing of Bullrich’s bloc was that it did not, he said.

“Today there is no future,” said Picat. “Within that disillusionment, people are looking for something different.”

That search applies above all to Córdoba, a tourist oasis in the heart of the country boasting scenic mountains, rivers, plains and valleys that’s also Argentina’s main producer of dairy, corn and auto parts. 

Speaking in the province’s river-laced capital of the same name, Leonardo Destefano, secretary of Córdoba’s Industrial Union, which represents businesses from mining to shoemaking, laid out the predicament of deciding who can best extricate Argentina from its economic mire. 

“In Massa we have the certainty we’ll continue under this model. The problem is that we don’t know for sure if with Milei we’ll get out faster” from crisis, he said over coffee in the body’s ornate city-centre building. “What’s certain is we have this type of dilemma because we created it.”

With barely any political infrastructure or track record, Milei, 53, bets he can replicate the results of former president Mauricio Macri of the pro-market bloc, who scored 72 percent in Córdoba in 2015 — a wager local pollsters also make because of the anti-incumbent sentiment that runs deep in the province. 

Milei visited Córdoba just once this year before placing first in an August primary. He returned this week to hold his last rally outside a shopping mall in the provincial capital, ditching the Buenos Aires City concert venue he packed during the previous two rounds.

Massa, 51, is meanwhile cranking up the Peronist machinery to fight back hard. The career politician, who doled out welfare assistance and tax rebates to woo voters throughout the campaign, toured a powdered milk factory and a corn biodiesel hub last week in a cross-country sprint. Massive billboards of a grinning Massa grace most street corners of Córdoba, from the wealthy industrial centres that export dairy to Brazil in the south to the poorest, left-behind train hubs in the north.

He’s especially targeting voters of Juan Schiaretti, the provincial governor who also contested the presidency, taking only seven percent nationwide but 28 percent locally. Schiaretti is of a local Peronist stripe but like his province, vehemently against Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina’s polarising former president and current vice-president. Fernández de Kirchner is blamed for policies that hurt Córdoba’s agricultural base and a 2013 episode where her government withheld the Armed Forces while lootings injured more than 200 people.

Massa punctuated his Córdoba trip with a rally in a muggy indoor stadium crowded with labour unions and activists. In a nod to the province’s hostility to Fernández de Kirchner’s party — and his — Massa apologised for the times the government turned its back on Córdoba and promised a new era of national unity. 

“Undecided voters will define this election,” said Tania Kyshakevych, a provincial congresswoman who is among a handful of local politicians building Massa’s base in Córdoba. Milei, she said, “capitalized on the anger of the most vulnerable sectors. We lost the streets because we weren’t able to solve their root problems.”

Kyshakevych is hoping to win them back the Peronist way: relentless door-knocking to poke holes in Milei’s platform over mate, the bitter herbal infusion Argentines love to sip. There are plenty of entry points, from his proposals to overhaul the public education and healthcare systems to his criticism of Pope Francis — an important figure in the Catholic stronghold even if he weren’t Argentine.

Frequently foul-mouthed, Milei has scrambled to recast himself as a viable choice for centrists. He became less abrasive and mostly stayed off-air. Gone is his chainsaw, once a fixture at rallies to signify the cuts he’d make to the state. On TikTok, where he made his brand yelling, he’s gone quiet, ending a recent video in a flat voice with his signature catchphrase: “Long live freedom, dammit!” The risk is that in blurring his anti-politician persona to compete with the professionals, he loses his most fervent base.

“I liked the old Milei,” César Durán, a 46-year-old entrepreneur in Jesus Maria, said over a lunch of sizzling steak in a traditional Argentine parrilla, or barbecue.

He backed Milei in the first round but now he’s not sure he’ll cast any ballot. “People don’t even want to vote because we’re sick of everything,” he said.

by Manuela Tobias, Bloomberg

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