The big question about any election is normally who will win but in this case it is also worth asking what they will win. Is this year’s contest a good election to lose – will the winners find themselves facing a mountain of unpayable debt amid the political and social impossibility of implementing the structural reforms needed to break out of economic stagnation, given an inexorably hung Congress and the impatience of a disgruntled electorate with a huge sense of entitlement? Or is Argentina “condemned to success” (to revive the words of the caretaker president Eduardo Duhalde two decades ago) with a vast global appetite for its food, shale fuels, lithium, etc. and a population bent on change?
That question of what will be won is extremely difficult to answer but the question of who will win is hardly easier in this final weekend before the PASO primaries. Their proximity does not bring the candidates any closer to any certainty as they drift into a terra incognita without any compass from the opinion polls, unreliable even when in good faith with huge numbers of potential voters churlishly begrudging any response – more “la Argentina secreta” than ever.
In this context almost anything can happen. One leading political consultant recently told this columnist that he could not envision any scenario whereby Patricia Bullrich is not the next president but that he would not put any money on it. Just to give an extreme example of a surprise result – a nationwide landslide for the Juntos por el Cambio opposition which simultaneously loses its City Hall cradle and stronghold. Highly improbable but not impossible. The first half of this forecast is easy enough to envisage – a massive backlash against inflation, impoverishment and general socioeconomic disarray. And the City upset? Both Unión por la Patria mayoral candidate Leandro Santoro and Juntos hopeful Senator Martín Lousteau have centre-left Radicalism in common (even if the starting-point for the former and the current parking-spot for the latter) – their combined voting blocs might just top 40 percent which in turn might just be a superior critical mass to a resisted Jorge Macri if and when it comes to a November runoff.
But let’s talk serious. The key to this year’s presidential election looks like being the result of next weekend’s PASO primary between City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and Patricia Bullrich (their friction is usually criticised as destructive but it could even boost the opposition vote next Sunday by offering the show of a catfight to thrill a jaded electorate after 40 years of voting). The latter would seem to have an irreversible opinion poll lead but the Santa Fe primaries only three weekends ago sound a cautionary note as to how silent majorities (or at least larger minorities) can trump the intense minorities only too keen to respond to pollsters. Instead of trying to peer ahead, this column will turn to past experience for guidance.
There have been only two genuinely competitive primaries since the return of democracy in 1983 whose projection through to today favours each of the two PRO rivals in turn. The first was the Peronist primary of mid-1988 between then provincial governors Antonio Cafiero (Buenos Aires) and Carlos Menem (La Rioja), won by the latter by 54 to 46 percent. At first sight this would seem a slam dunk for Cafiero, running by far the country’s largest district and backed by the trade union “spine” of the Peronist movement against a hirsute Menem walking on the wild side with his “blood to regain the Malvinas” and “salariazo massive wage hike” – throwing in Cafiero’s social democratic proximity to the then ruling Radicals makes his structural advantages and ideological consensus start looking a lot like Rodríguez Larreta with all his City Hall machinery. For all the differences, Menem had various points in common with Bullrich – greater charisma, fierier rhetoric and a promise of drastic transformation when reading between the lines (unnecessary with Bullrich). And who won in 1988? Bullrich 1, Rodríguez Larreta 0.
In 1999 the Alliance held a presidential primary between its two main wings – the Radicals under Fernando “they say I’m boring” de la Rúa and Frepaso (a combo of dissident Peronists and socialists) represented by Graciela Fernández Meijide, who was (and remains at the age of 92) an extremely interesting woman. Like Bullrich today, Fernández Meijide seemed more in touch with the mood of the times – then a growing backlash against a corrupt Menem’s neo-conservatism in some ways anticipating the more positive aspects of Kirchnerism. Yet De la Rúa romped to the presidential nomination by 63.9 to 35.7 percent of the vote, largely thanks to the Radical structure present in every corner of the country. Who has more party machinery today? Bullrich 1, Rodríguez Larreta 1.
But we can also look to the very recent as well as the more distant past for guidance – namely, last weekend’s Chubut provincial elections. First, the results: youthful PRO Senator Ignacio Torres representing Juntos por el Cambio ended two decades of Peronist rule with 35.71 as against 34.1 percent for Comodoro Rivadavia Mayor Juan Pablo Luque (Arriba Chubut) with libertarian César Treffinger in third place (13.2 percent) while the leftist Frente de Izquierda’s Emilse Saavedra (4.3 percent) and GEN’s Oscar Petersen (2.25 percent) were both outvoted by the blank or spoiled ballots of 10.5 percent in a turnout of 69.4 percent of the 474,242 voters. The margin was so narrow that the result might well have been a literal case of the winds of fortune, given the gales battering the Peronist stronghold of Comodoro Rivadavia on the eve of the election and slashing turnout there.
Too narrow for opposition comfort if they end up winning nationwide by a similar margin – Torres might now enjoy a legislative majority of 16 of the 27 seats given Chubut’s winner-take-(almost)all electoral law but Congress does not work that way at national level, hampering governance quite apart from extra-parliamentary opposition. And for the opposition the Chubut election was theirs to lose, given the train wreck of the debt-ridden, strike-torn, poverty-stricken train wreck of the Mariano Arcioni administration (with the outgoing governor now disowned by Luque and relegated to a Parlasur candidacy perhaps the closest rival of President Alberto Fernández as the nation’s ultimate lame duck) – opinion polls and the early count alike gave Torres virtually a double-digit lead, only to almost dwindle away.
Not that Massa had anything to celebrate with Arcioni one of his oldest friends while the two PRO presidential rivals were entirely justified in applauding the addition of Chubut to San Juan and San Luis as this year’s opposition gains. Any win at all gives invaluable momentum as the last local result before the PASO primaries – far better than the unsettling frustration of the Córdoba mayoral defeat in the previous weekend. Otherwise Treffinger’s performance as the most successful libertarian candidate apart from Martín Menem in La Rioja (actually topping the blank votes, unlike most of his provincial counterparts) deserves attention – should we start taking a long overrated and now almost forgotten Javier Milei seriously again? Talking of blank ballots, that and turnout were disconcerting manifestations of voter disenchantment and apathy – only around three out of every five Chubut voters cast valid ballots, which means that Torres was elected governor by less than a quarter of the provincial electorate.
Only Buenos Aires (City and Province), Catamarca, Chaco, Entre Ríos, Mendoza, Santa Cruz and Santa Fe have now still to elect their next governors but before any of those elections come next weekend’s nationwide PASO primaries.