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ARGENTINA | 28-10-2023 04:25

Massa, the political pro, pushes himself into pole position

Sergio Massa has already achieved the unachievable, running on a disastrous economic record that would propel most politicians directly out of office. Professional, slick and unflustered, who would bet against him now?

Written off and ruled out, Sergio Massa faced an unenviable record to run on. As both presidential candidate for the ruling coalition and the current government’s economy minister, he has had unrivalled political power as the “super-minister” across many portfolios, but he has failed to turn around the sinking ship that is Argentina’s economy.

The stats speak for themselves: 40 percent poverty, GDP in decline and 138 percent annual inflation. Leading a fractured coalition that had failed to produce a candidate everyone could rally behind into what looked like a sure defeat – how on earth would he finish first and win the election? Second? Ok maybe, but first?

What a difference a week makes. 

After storming to a shock 37 percent in last Sundays’ presidential vote, Massa is in the ascendance and is one more ballot away from the Presidency. Who would bet against him on November 19 now?

In recent weeks, Massa’s unflustered, confident style and slick professionalism has come to the fore. 

During the presidential debates, attacked from all angles, he stuck to his talking points and shook his head at his opponents’ claims, smiling dismissively at their suggestions. He would then respond, without losing his cool, often choosing to directly address the viewer, looking straight down the camera lens rather than directly at his rival.

On the campaign trail, he has shook everyone’s hand and smiled for the camera, doling out hugs and promises like they were two-a-penny. The voiced ambitions were aspirational, they speak of a better time ahead. 

Behind closed doors, responding to WhatsApp messages, sources say he replies to all enquiries, often with a personal touch that’s appropriate for the audience, to keep allies onside.

Massa's professional style was all-too apparent too last Sunday night as he took to stage at the ruling coalition’s bunker. Greeted with hearty cheers, chants and song by militants on the edge of ecstasy, he waited for the crowd to calm and delivered a pitch-perfect speech. 

The tone was sombre, it acknowledged the hurt that so many Argentines are feeling, and promised a brighter future ahead. As if trying to manifest a future that we all know isn’t likely to come, he even declared optimistically that the ‘grieta’ was over (Milei would soon trash that idea with his speech).

The economy minister appeared alone onstage and was only joined by fellow party leaders and his family when his speech had finished. It was a very deliberate approach, distancing himself from the internal bickering of the ruling coalition and attempting to appeal to swing voters who remain unsure.

Turning to the battle ahead, Massa emphasised that he stood for “democratic values” and “respect for institutions” – keywords that he hopes will trigger voters who backed the opposition coalition.

"I want to talk to those who went to the dark room and voted [by casting] blank [ballots], who perhaps, with despair or anger stayed at home,” he said. 

Incredibly, given that most gathered there were militant Peronists who pledge allegiance to Cristina, Néstor, Evita and Juan, Massa spoke right over their heads of those in Chacarita and aimed firmly at those watching on television. Those are the people he now needs to reach.

“I want to talk to them if they chose [rivals] Myriam [Bregman], Juan [Schiaretti], to those thousands of Radicals who throughout Argentina share democratic values with us but also to those who chose another option thinking about the need to have an Argentina in peace, with order, on the basis of building democratic values, respect for institutions, those who want a country with certainties."

His political acumen was apparent on Thursday night too as he gave his first comments about Bullrich’s deal with Milei. Rushed by reporters as he left a late-night meeting in a car, Massa lowered the car window and took a couple of questions from waiting journalists. Quizzed about the accord, he didn’t let rip and gave the impression he was nonplussed. 

"I saw some headlines on the TV in the office,” he said, dismissing the furore as a sideshow and sheathing a cutting remark in a sheen of non-importance. 

Then he found the perfect soundbite and dropped it, knowing full well that it would be trimmed and played out across the airwaves. “I understand that it is an issue that generates confusion for people because of the contradictions,” he offered calmly, highlighting the hypocrisy that he will use to undermine Bullrich and Milei in the weeks to come.

Pushed on possible negotiations with opposition-aligned governors and their potential unrest at the move, Massa advertised the possibility of talks and assured any waverers that might want to talk the utmost discretion.

"Meetings or talks that are not made public and are private, are private. I am very respectful of that. It is part of what gives us confidence in the face of so much noise,” he declared.

It was a brief political masterclass, delivered from a car window and lasting less than two minutes. It contrasted sharply with the more amateur approach of Milei and the sheer discomfort of Bullrich behind a microphone, as evidenced once again during at her midweek explosive announcement.

In four weeks time, the last hurdle will appear. The race is still yet to be run, but Massa knows it’s just one more obstacle.

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James Grainger

James Grainger

Editor-in-Chief, Buenos Aires Times.

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