Voters in Argentina’s PASO primaries dealt a strong setback to President Alberto Fernández and his government on Sunday, with the majority opting to back the opposition centre-right Juntos coalition.
In most the country’s regions, the ruling Frente de Todos coalition’s candidates finished second behind the Juntos coalition established by former president Mauricio Macri (2015-2019).
The primaries finalise the candidates who will run for office in the November 14 midterms. But given that voting is mandatory for citizens aged between 18 and 69, they also serve as an assessment of the president’s management of the country. Sunday’s vote was Fernández’s first electoral test since being sworn into office in December 2019.
With more than 76 percent of votes counted in the region, in Buenos Aires Province – Peronism’s traditional heartland where a third of the country’s electorate lives – Juntos had taken 38.3 percent of votes, compared to 33.5 percent for the ruling coalition.
The opposition also emerged strongest in Buenos Aires City, the federal capital, where with 96 percent of ballots counted, Juntos had obtained 48.27 percent, with Frente de Todos trailing on 24.62 percent.
"It is a catastrophic scenario for the government. With these numbers, the view is that an opposition victory should be consolidated" in the midterms, political scientist Carlos Fara told AFP.
Argentines will return to the polls on November 14, when 127 of 257 deputies in the Chamber of Deputies and 24 of 72 senatorial seats will be up for grabs. The election will help shape the balance of power in Congress – Frente de Todos has a majority in the Senate, while it is a minority leader in the lower house.
Sunday’s elections were the first to take place nationwide during the Covid-19 pandemic. Health protocols introduced to tackle the spread of the virus led to queues forming outside some polling stations as voters waited to cast their ballot.
A total of 34 million people were eligible to vote. Despite voting being mandatory, turnout reached just over 67 percent, according to the government.
Sunday’s results are “punishment” for the goverment, said Fara.
"These results reflect [the view] that the majority prefer that the government loses the legislative elections, although it remains to be seen what will finally happen in November," he said.
Fernández was inaugurated as president in December 2019, just three months before the first case of covid-19 was registered in Argentina.
The country has to date registered more than 113,000 deaths out of 5.5 million infections, though a marked decrease in infections has been seen over the last few weeks as vaccination progresses. As of Sunday, just under 64 percent of Argentina’s population of 45 million had received one dose, with 40.5 percent having completed vaccination.
“The main issue of people's concern is the economy and it is the government's worst-evaluated issue” in the polls, said Fara.
The government says it is committed to sustaining the economic reactivation seen over the past few months since emerged from lockdown, but the country remains in a difficult position. In recession since 2018, the economy contracted by 9.9 percent last year amid tight restrictions.
Meanwhile, the pockets of Argentines continue to be hit by runaway inflation. Prices rose 29.1 percent from January to July, with sharp increases seen in the price of foods.
Fara said that Argentina’s government had faced negative approval ratings for more than a year and that “moderation” had been put to one side since assuming control.
It is a "strong wake-up call to the government," he added, stressing that the remainder of Fernández's term in office will depend on how this result is interpreted – both inside and outside his own coalition.
– TIMES/AFP [Reporting by Sonia Avalos]