Thursday, October 17, 2019
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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 05-10-2019 09:56

It ain’t over ’til it’s over

Sergio Massa, a prominent member of the Peronist front, quipped that the president has embarked on a “farewell tour.”

Time flies, except when it doesn’t. The presidential election, scheduled to take place on Sunday, October 27, is less than a month away, yet it feels so distant. Argentina suddenly is a land of many transitions. President Maurcio Macri was thrashed by his Peronist rival, Alberto Fernández, in the August presidential primaries. Now the country is in a transition between that shocker of a primary and the vote later this month. The situation has drained banks of greenbacks and delayed a pending injection of US$5.4 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). When the votes are counted and the result is known, the landscape will shift dramatically and a new transition will begin. Time is money. You bet. For Argentina’s Central Bank, each day in this transition is costing a fortune. And its money can run out, triggering an implosion.

Macri’s centre-right coalition is in trouble. But the president is not giving up. Macri, in his latest campaign ad, addresses voters, saying that he has heard them and that they are right to be angry. His camp hopes that voters will “rethink” their decision. Buenos Aires Province Governor María Eugenia Vidal, who was also routed by her Peronist own rival, Axel Kicillof, in a huge upset in August, is following the same line, declaring ‘If you don’t give up, neither will I.’

Macri recently headed a large demonstration in Barrancas de Belgrano, an upmarket neighbourhood in Buenos Aires City (his bastion), and is now touring the country in a whirlwind bid to whip up some momentum. On his tour, the president – delivering chirpy speeches from makeshift stages in town squares but on the verge of losing his voice – is urging his supporters to convince others to change their vote and engage in discusssions on social media networks. The president’s rivals are guffawing though. Sergio Massa, a prominent member of the Peronist front, quipped that the president has embarked on a “farewell tour.” Maybe he has. But it ain’t over until it’s over — even when this race feels practically over.

At times Macri looks as if he’s hooked on being a candidate. But in reality he is the president. The president is delivering campaign promises, like breaks on employer contributions for small companies next year, behaving like he is not the man in charge. But he is and the facts are catching up. The poverty rate now stands at a little over 35 percent. Macri won the presidential election in 2015 promising “zero poverty.” The rate is now higher than what it was four years ago. To boot, September’s inflation rate will be another punishing reminder to voters that maybe there is no rethinking to be done.

Amid the bleakness, there was a ray of light for Juntos por el Cambio this week. The president’s coalition convincingly won the gubernatorial election in Mendoza on Sunday, defeating the Peronist candidate (a Kirchnerite with direct access to former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner). But was Macri the real winner here? The local Radical bosses in Mendoza won. Read deeper into the result and what you find is that the president is no longer on good terms with the Radical Party winners in Mendoza, even though they are technically part of the ruling coalition. The president was not invited to the celebrations,but guess who was? Martín Lousteau, a oncecherubic economist now with the Radicals who could eventually, one day, shoot for the presidency. He flew to Mendoza to take part in the festivities.

Back to the president’s tour which, granted, may turn out to be useless. But at least this round of campaigning could help Juntos por el Cambio hold on to its bastion, Buenos Aires City. Macri’s candidate in Buenos Aires City, incumbent Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, needs to win with 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off against Frente de Todos’ Matías Lammens.

Macri, who now sees himself as a crusader of market-friendly reforms on the trail, is seeking to “turn the election around.” Meanwhile, Alberto Fernández – his Peronist rival who has Fernández de Kirchner as his vote-winning running-mate – is behaving more and more like a head of state. The frontrunner met with the leaders of the UIA Argentine industrial union this week to consider future policies. He said he was delighted with the outcome of the meeting.Wait. Alberto Fernández has not won just yet, has he? If you ask Argentina’s industrialists, he will. The UIA, a lobby that has always disliked foreign competition, seems to have lost all hope in Macri.

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, thumped the president with a ruling in favour of a claim from the nation’s provinces that the recently announced IVA/VAT deductions cannot bite into provincial revenue. Macri administration officials said the Supreme Court ruling was unusual, coming in the middle of a presidential campaign. It’s another sign that Macri is waddling about in lame-duck territory. The meetings Alberto Fernández is holding are nothing more than preliminary rehearsals for what is to come. The Peronist candidate’s strategy now is to act like a president. But there are two presidential debates slated ahead of October 27 and they will be testing. The debates could jolt voters into realising that, no, Alberto Fernández is not yet their president.

There’s speculation that if he wins, the new head of state will call for a social agreement with business leaders and trade unions to freeze salaries and prices for 180 days. The new administration will have to pull that off in a land where strikes are very common, however. The latest round of industrial action was called by pilots of Aerolíneas Argentinas, the state-run airline, who are demanding a wage hike to compensate for rocketing inflation. The novelty is that Fernández, who has the endorsement of the trade unions, has urged the pilots not to strike. The pilots told the candidate to get lost.

The spat is perhaps evidence that the opposition candidate is not keen on agitation and of the complete implosion of the Macri administration. It’s a big shift, at least for now, from the merciless mauling of Raúl Alfonsín, the Radical president who was forced to hand over power before the end of his presidential mandate in 1989, after losing to the Peronists with the country engulfed by the flames of hyperinflation.

The pilots’ defiance, driven by the fact that all salaries have been effectively pulverised by the price hikes, shows that hammering out a deal in 2020 will not be easy. Good luck with that social pact, Mr Fernández.

Martín Gambarotta

Martín Gambarotta

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