This moody electoral year changes by the minute. May completed an entire month of foreign exchange Pax, something that seemed implausible not long ago. Nobody knows for certain if this calm will precede another pre-electoral storm, but in the meantime the country’s political system is taking some air to do what they do best: jockeying for positions before the race formally begins.
President Mauricio Macri’s humour has also improved. It is inversely proportional to the price of the greenback, if you hadn’t noticed. But he also had good political news this week – or at least as good as it can get in what looks like an uphill electoral scenario for him. After an avalanche of speeches that were critical of the state of the economy and particularly of his style of political management, the president’s Radical party partners agreed at their National Convention on Monday that they would nonetheless stay in the Cambiemos (“Let’s Change”) coalition. However, as we discussed here last week, the Radicals really had nowhere else to go.
The Radicals now say they want to renegotiate terms within the coalition, even though the outcome of the convention leaves them with little negotiating power. A more confident Macri leaked to a trustworthy columnist in the daily La Nación this week that he was “the only presidential candidate” Cambiemos has, an affirmation that was accompanied in the piece from Joaquín Morales Solá with a description of how he banged his fist on a table as he said it.
Truth is the Radicals will not get the chance to field their own candidate in the PASO primaries in August, and can now only (and hardly) hope to get a shot at the vice-presidential slot. If this brief passage of financial stability continues, the ruling party’s electoral strategy will be outlined, as has always been the case in Macri’s PRO party, by Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña and the president’s chief spin-doctor, the Ecuadorean Jaime Durán Barba. And they don’t believe the Radicals have political value to add in that state of affairs.
As a campaign manager, Peña is credited as having never lost Macri an election. This year though, he faces the ultimate challenge of delivering a victory in the context of a deep recession and an uncertain economic outlook, both during and after the electoral race. Durán Barba, meanwhile, is a strange figure among the fauna of political consultants who tend to work in the shadows, instead choosing to vent his views for everyone to hear. This week he said in an interview with a Brazilian news outlet that Argentines are divided between those who fear Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and those who have been let down by Macri. At the end of the day, he reckoned, fear will be stronger than disillusionment.
Ruling parties should never be underestimated, politics has taught us. This principle applies especially to this ruling party too, which has not been capable of sorting out the country’s severe and chronic economic problems but has proved to be a committed group of professionals whose electoral marketing is well above the local political median. PRO’s communication innovations will introduce the latest social media segmentation and viralisation techniques during the campaign, with WhatsApp featuring as the star channel this year (it has performed miracles for Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil). However, it is arguable that those same marketing skills – which are divisive and aggressive in nature and excel during the campaign – do not always complement a government with the need to oversee a country in trouble, one that is screaming for consensus rather than confrontation.
Macri’s ruling party artistry factored into Fernández de Kirchner’s decision to drop a presidential candidacy that was likely to crash into the wall of Durán Barba’s fear tactics. The anointing of Alberto Fernández at the head of the ticket instead is leading, slowly but surely, to a Peronist party unity puzzle whose completion still needs an extra couple of pieces in order to fall into place.
One of those key pieces is Sergio Massa, who like Fernández, was also Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s Cabinet Chief at one point in the past. The Tigre leader’s Renewal Front party held its own convention on Thursday. In its final document, delegates said that “the fragmentation of the opposition only benefits Macri and his possible re-election.” And it placed entirely on Massa the responsibility of negotiating an electoral/ governing agreement with the Fernández-Cristina Fernández duet.
Massa is under great pressure from his followers in Buenos Aires Province, who fear that the extreme polarisation in the making could leave them out in the cold in the country’s largest electoral district (37 percent of the total voters). The most likely outcome is that Massa will abandon his trademark attempt to find “a third way” in Argentine politics, which won 20 percent of the votes in the 2015 presidential elections and 11 percent in the 2017 midterm elections in Buenos Aires Province. It’s a move that at this point looks like it could be crucial in tipping the scales in the favour of the opposition.