Six months before Argentina goes to the polls for a crunch presidential eletion, Mauricio Mari’s influential Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña gave an exclusive interview to Perfil network CEO Jorge Fontevecchia, during which he discussed Cambiemos, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the president’s re-election hopes.
The elections draw near. What do your opinion polls tell you?
The scenario is very similar to the first round in 2015. Two cores of identity stand out, with their values and political organisation highly defined. Then there is a slightly smaller third core. It may thus be observed that the preferences and inclinations of Argentines don’t Buenos Aires Province Governor María Eugenia Vidal. change that much, quite apart from their mood. There is a majority of Argentines who want to keep moving forward, a minority of Argentines who want to return to Kirchnerism and a big percentage of undecided [voters].
So you see a more or less continued deadlock between the government and Kirchnerism, with a third way of almost half the vote?
As in 2015, the ‘third way’ brings together those who do not identify with either side. But they do not make up any third identifiable group or represent any line of thought.
The panorama would be a 35/35/15 split, or 35/35/20 split?
In broad lines but perhaps there’s another three-way breakdown. In the previous election numerous Argentines sought an economic and political change and [they are] still looking [for that]. Then there was another group which did not want any change, feeling comfortable with Kirchnerism, and then there was a third group which valued political change above economic.
That’s how public opinion has been moving in these years. That does not necessarily imply that there are three different political identities and sets of demands but the third group, at any rate, will be choosing between Macri and Cristina.
If the opinion polls with which you work show María Eugenia Vidal three to five percent ahead of President Mauricio Macri in a hypothetical run-off against Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, wouldn’t it make sense for Vidal to be the candidate?
That would be an erroneous reading of the opinion polls. The analysis of run-off scenarios at this stage would be a gigantic technical blunder, within a context where we do not even know who are going to be the candidates and where the vast majority of Argentines are undecided. Impossible with so many months still to go.
The correct way of giving continuity to this deep change is to have Mauricio running for a second term, María Eugenia for a second term in [Buenos Aires] Province, Horacio [Rodríguez Larreta] in the City and so on and so forth.
But if you lose the run-off by three percent, wouldn’t the whole Cambiemos plan collapse, because you did not bet on a winner?
That analysis is based on false premises, given the level of indecision. A three to four percent difference at this stage is within the margin of error. We continue to believe that Mauricio Macri is the best path and we want him re-elected, to head the Cambiemos process of change.
Today’s three percent might not be sufficient evidence to change the candidate, given the number of undecided. But if it were 10 or 15 percent, would it be a different story?
It would not only be the presidential candidate which would need changing [in that case]. The president is the leader of Cambiemos, spearheading this transformation. Having María Eugenia run for president would also imply a change in Buenos Aires Province, in the entire architecture of the predictable, serious and responsible work we’re doing. We trust that the voters value that. If we saw any indication that there was no way to win other than changing the candidate, we’d be the first ones looking at it. But that’s not what the opinion polls are saying today.
To what do you attribute so many people in the so-called “red circle,” worried that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner might win, insisting on that idea?
Surely to a genuine concern in some cases, and possible misinformation in others.
To misinformation or faulty analysis? Because that’s what the data say.
Yes, but a linear reading of the data is also an error of information. You need a much broader context. This always happens to us during the preelectoral period: many opinions arise as to the best way of assembling a strategy.
For example, what happened with Sergio Massa in 2015...
The case of Massa in 2015, or the alliance with [Roberto] Lavagna, [Hugo] Moyano, [José Manuel] De la Sota and [Francisco] De Narváez in 2013, or that Mauricio should run in 2011 instead of being re-elected in the City. We vindicated the logic of our working strategy to win those elections. We took those paths in order to be consistent and win because that is the central objective.
Might we consider another hypothesis: that at this stage in their lives the president wants to stay president, while María Eugenia does not wish to be president?
The most central fact is that the president wants to stay president. Furthermore, that he can win and is doing a very good job. It’s natural that he should continue.
It seems to me that all María Eugenia’s energies are concentrated on Buenos Aires Province and that is also very good. Furthermore, the level of confidence and teamwork in that metropolitan, provincial and national trident [also including Horacio] is a central political factor. The same applies to the Radical governors aligned with Cambiemos.
It’s the first time there has been a relationship of confidence between a president and the governor of a province which was in a catastrophic situation.
Could it be that it does not suit Cristina to be president either, that she would prefer Cambiemos to complete putting the economy into order, while paying the political costs implied, but winning the first round in order to remain the leader of the opposition?
The analyses of Cristina are hard to understand.
Do you think that situation would suit her?
I think she’s going to lose in the first round but that varies according to the information received and the analysis made.
Do you really think she’s going to lose in the first round?
She represents a currently overrated minority. Cristina can channel some of the anger over the cyclical situation, something which changes as soon as she returns to the scene. That already happened in 2017. I don’t think her political volume should be underestimated but nor should it be overestimated.
Do you have any doubts that she will run?
There will be a Kirchnerite presence in this election. Whether her or somebody who represents her values and her political identity seems secondary to me.
But it’s not so secondary whether or not she runs. Brazil is an example, with Fernando Haddad not the same as [Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva].
I wouldn’t like to say that Kirchnerism has a stronger identity than the PT [Workers’ Party] in Brazil.
The PT had governors and mayors 25 years before Lula reached the presidency, it’s a real party…
It’s not about parties here, it’s about identity and the identity constructed by Kirchnerism is very potent. In the last 20-25 years the political identification of the people has changed greatly.
But you don’t believe in parties.
That’s not so. I do believe in them but I also think they need redefining. Working toward a party system representing today’s voter is urgently needed. Kirchnerism has sufficient identity for other candidates to represent it. It’s a highly defined system of beliefs and values.
And that system of beliefs and values is different from Peronism?
Many Peronist leaders do not identify with it, having a more democratic, republican and reform-minded attitude. They accompanied us rationally and we value that enormously. That permitted the construction of a democratic majority towards transformation.
Will Roberto Lavagna be a candidate?
I don’t know that either. In the month or so of definitions for the PASO primary that sector will need to define its organisation, leadership, values and proposals. Whether it is Lavagna, Massa, [Juan Manuel] Urtubey or [Miguel Angel] Pichetto who represents them, that’s their issue.
Would Lavagna take more votes away from Macri and Massa from Cristina? If the third way were geared toward Lavagna, would that be more dangerous for the government?
Such analysis is not my job. I’m a politician and I’m not neutral in that discussion. That would depend on how they organise and on the values and ideas presented. If you look at the 10 points which Lavagna sent to the president, there’s 95 percent overlap with what we think. Whether that constitutes an identity which competes with ours or whether people are going to say: “I might as well vote for Macri if that’s what they offer,” I don’t know.
If you observe what Sergio Massa says, you can find some points in agreement and others not. It seems to me that he offers the most possibilities for an identity which helps to diversify and re-order the political system. It’s up to them.
Would it be good for the political system if the [sector of] Peronism which does not identify with Kirchnerite values were bolstered and represented in Congress?
It would be good for Argentine democracy for that sector to be nationally organised. Its current level of organisation is more linked to certain territories. A fuller organisation would help to generate more stability, calm and predictability.
What’s your analysis of the elections in the interior of the country, which until now have been without good results for the government?
These results ratify our interpretation that you should look at 2015 before making electoral forecasts. The results were practically identical in cases where the party line-ups were similar.
I think that it is an enormous error to draw national conclusions from provincial elections. Provincial elections are just that, provincial.
The voter feels increasingly free to choose according to the level of government. Santa Fe goes to show that voting is not all the way down the line but crosses over. People have more independent criteria than before.
Earlier this month I gave a university lecture in Tucumán where I was told that Cambiemos could come fourth with incumbent Governor Juan Luis Manzur first, the previous governor José Alperovich second (both Peronist), Ricardo Bussi third and only then, Silvia Elías of Cambiemos.
In 2015, over and above the fraud charges, the election was even, while in 2017 Cambiemos won as many seats as a united Peronism, but now things are going very badly in that province.
Electoral results never come before the voting. Silvia Elías is an excellent candidate. Besides, when the party breakdown is altered, the comparison with 2015 becomes more difficult. I would insist on that in any scenario – because in this case it is now more diverse whereas in 2015 there were basically two offers. All analysis is local. I could say the same for Córdoba where it is clear that provincial and national voting are not the same.
Could the opinion polls be wrong, as they were in the case of Brexit or the Colombian peace referendum?
You have to be very careful with the opinion polls, neither taking a linear perspective nor reading any opinion poll published. In many cases they overturn basic ethical principles, above all responsibility in their publication. Within the context of the transformation in communications, there is an abandonment of the proper rigour, in finding out who did the poll or how it was investigated. That can lead to errors. Neuquén was an example.
Does the flurry around Cristina Kirchner’s book favour the chances of winning for Cambiemos?
That Cristina exits her silent mode, so that everybody can see who she is, what values and ideas she has and what she proposes for Argentina’s future, favours the voter. It is naive to think that a candidate can stay silent forever. That silence showed weakness, that she did not dare express what she believes. We already knew what would happen. Cristina Kirchner expresses in Sinceramente her values, just as she did via nationwide broadcast before leaving office. It’s surprising that many people still believe in a conversion, that Cristina is now a modern social democrat open to dialogue.
Would her continuing to talk benefit Cambiemos?
There are not all that many people who say they want her back. Most Argentines do not want to be governed by the values, beliefs and leadership of Cristina Kirchner. We said it before and we say it now.
Competing implies a moment of balance, the more so in a difficult context like the present. But that’s not the discussion in a campaign, it’s about the offers for the future.
Cambiemos’ offer is more valuable than those of Kirchnerism and the opposition in general. Our challenge is not so much to beat Cristina Kirchner as to regain the enthusiasm and hope of a sector of Argentines which believed in us and which wanted something better but now has doubts.
At that level we’re competing against ourselves.
Could the Radical [party’s] Convention decide not to continue in Cambiemos?
No. Cambiemos goes much deeper than the cyclical. If you look at our platform and our roadmap in 2015, both at Gualeguaychú [the pre-electoral Radical convention] and the final election platform, our political identity was hugely complemented by the diversity of our parties. Apart from the enormous majority which wants to follow this path, Cambiemos is a very deep force in the heart of the country. In the provinces, in town halls, among thinkers, in parliamentary activity.
I accept that this is a complex year ... But that does not invalidate a system of beliefs in a democratic and republican Argentina integrated with the world, projecting towards the future, seeking an innovative market and creating jobs, values which constitute the heart of that political vision which is Cambiemos.
According to what you say, the identity of Cambiemos has crystallised and the union between PRO and Radicalism is greater than three years ago.
Yes, especially when it comes to responding to electoral demands. We said as much in 2015 and 2016: Cambiemos was created by its voters being joined to its leaders. Mauricio, Ernesto Sanz and Lilita Carrió formed this political coalition with intelligence and generosity and it has deepened with the passage of time.
But Sanz is not around and Lilita no longer means the same.
Ernesto is still around and we talk all the time with him.
Not with the same weight.
Sanz is no longer party chairman. But there are Alfredo Cornejo, Gerardo Morales, José Cano, the national committee authorities, Mario Negri, José Corral, the candidates in the provinces. They understand that there is something deeper here than the cyclical. Lilita is also very active.
Should the presidential ticket carry a Radical in the vicepresidential slot?
That’s something to be resolved right at the end and it is a very personal decision for the President. It is very important that the President be able to choose with freedom. There are men and women of the Radical party, PRO and the Civic Coalition alike who could occupy that role. By design, the vice-presidency requires enormous confidence on the part of the President. It has to be somebody with whom he feels comfortable.
Are you confident that Cambiemos will win the elections even if the economy does not improve?
The discussion today is more profound than the economy. But I am convinced that those voting with their pockets will also vote for Cambiemos. There is no possibility that Kirchnerism can deliver welfare to the Argentines from one day to the next because there are no more piggy-banks to break. They left the cupboard bare.
You always insist that you did not invent the polarisation with Cristina Kirchner, but if you did not invent it, you used it. Would you accept some self-criticism for your use of the grieta?
No, because it’s not true. That would be misunderstanding the role of political identities and the voter. The other day we were talking with Jonathan Haidt, an American author and thinker who has done a lot of work in these issues. It must be understood that power has now passed to the citizenry. Today there is much less power to influence their ideas. That’s curious, because at the same time they criticise us for not having stressed sufficiently the disaster they left us.
We were heavily criticised in 2015 for NOT attacking Cristina. Rather than dedicating ourselves to talking about our rivals in that campaign, we preferred to underline our positive message. Only one percent was about what Kirchnerism had done since 2001. Until 2015, they talked about 2001 all the time. We didn’t.