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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 06-04-2019 10:26

River deep, mountain high

In most provinces the gubernatorial race is the main interest after the presidential showdown but Río Negro’s voting will offer a competing focus – the apparent departure of that ultimate wheeler-dealer Miguel Angel Pichetto after three terms in the Senate.

If neighbouring Neuquén offered little joy last month to either President Mauricio Macri or his predecessor and main rival Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, by stretching the local Neuquén Popular Movement’s hegemony into a sixth decade in this year’s first provincial elections, Río Negro’s chances of likewise dodging polarisation in tomorrow’s voting were hit hard by the Supreme Court decision to nix incumbent Governor Alberto Weretilneck’s re-election barely a fortnight ago. This ruling might well end up giving first blood in 2019 to Fernández de Kirchner with General Roca Mayor Martín Soria (who prefers the unambiguously Kirchnerite label of Victory Front to Peronist) enjoying opinion poll ratings generally more than doubling any rival and ranging up to 45 percent (a percentage accruing in February to Juntos Somos Río Negro, the hodgepodge progressive coalition created on the trot by Weretilneck while governor).

The huge booster looming for Kirchnerite momentum would be poor timing at this delicate stage of the economy, compounding electoral jitters both at home and abroad – in consequence, the strategic priorities of Macri’s Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition centre on seeking Kirchnerite frustration ahead of its own triumph (especially since their candidate belongs to the recently fractious Radical ally). Radical deputy Lorena Matzen has as much as 10-15 percent in her best opinion polls but the government would not mind seeing her with half that if it made JSRN (knocked back to a third of the vote by Weretlineck’s disqualification) more competitive. Weretilneck’s proxy is his Tourism Minister Arabela Carreras (an important portfolio for a province with all the beauties of Bariloche etc.), who prevailed over the outgoing lieutenant-governor – her triumph would be cold comfort for Macri since she has a Victory Front past. Either Carreras or Matzen would be Río Negro’s first woman governor but that might have to wait.

‘Easy come, easy go’ might be Weretilneck’s epitaph – an accidental governor with an impossible surname. Elected mayor of Cipoletti in 2007, he entered provincial politics as the lieutenant-governor of the current front-runner’s dad, Carlos Soria, who was shot dead by Martín Soria’s mum at the family’s New Year’s Eve party for 2012. Until the Fernández de Kirchner landslide of 2011, Río Negro Peronists had had to wait patiently during 28 years of unbroken Radical rule (seven straight terms with all three governors following Osvaldo Alvarez Guerrero in 1983 reelected, including the 1995 Radical presidential candidate Horacio Massaccesi who garnered three million votes) – the political joke of 1987 ran: “What does UCR stand for? Unicamente Córdoba y Ríonegro” (the only provinces won by the Radicals in that electoral meltdown). However, after waiting almost three decades, the Peronists were thus in power for just three weeks since Weretilneck was Frente Grande (maverick Peronists partnering the Radicals in the now extinct Alliance). Those three weeks in turn cost Weretilneck this year’s candidacy since the Supreme Court ruled that he could not appear in a gubernatorial ticket more than twice running under the provincial Constitution. Very picky on that point but nobody seems to have made any fuss when the provincial legislature voted last December to skip the PASO primaries altogether.

In most provinces the gubernatorial race is the main interest after the presidential showdown but Río Negro’s voting will offer a competing focus – the apparent departure of that ultimate wheeler-dealer Miguel Angel Pichetto after three terms in the Senate (two as majority leader and the other as Federal Peronist caucus leader, when he has been the indispensable gateway to legislation for Macri’s minority government). These days Pichetto is one of the pack of presidential hopefuls vying to be the Peronist alternative to Kirchnerism. As for his colleagues, Magadalena Odarda (previously Weretilneck’s Progressive Front voice in the Senate with a strong ecological bent) is now Soria’s running-mate while Silvina García Larraburu (the only Victory Front senator to vote against last year’s abortion bill) had been eying being Weretlineck’s runningmate, with her future plans now unclear.

Río Negro, the last Patagonian province in this series, is also the last of the 10 with the minimal Lower House representation of five deputies – currently Matzen and Sergio Wisky of Macri’s PRO on the government benches and on the Peronist side María Emilia Soria (daughter of the late Carlos and younger sister of the likely future governor) and Claudio Doñate for the Victory Front plus Silvia Horne of the picket-based Movimiento Evita. Doñate, Horne and Wisky vacate their seats this year. Wisky (a doctor and one of the most insistent advocates of abortion in one of the few inland provinces whose opinion polls favour the reform) is the seat most at risk although Cambiemos’ chances are slightly improved by JSRN’s decision not to run for Congress.

But tomorrow it is the governorship and 46 legislative assembly seats (with municipal voting up to the town halls) which will be defined by 545,695 voters at 1,649 polling-booths using traditional paper ballots – even if electronic voting legislation has been approved. Even if Río Negro has the same 1955 vintage as other Patagonian provinces, it slightly predates them as a territory – 1878 instead of 1884. Before that perhaps over 10 millennia of indigenous presence (Tehuelches, later Mapuches) with minimal European penetration before the viceroyalty (the explorer Ferdinand Magellan, the Jesuit missionary Nicolo Mascardi). Between 1878 and 1983 there were 47 governors or trustees but only six since then – Mario Franco (1973-1976), the only governor jailed by the 1976 coup apart from Carlos Menem, was the only Peronist before Soria. Nahuel Huapi national park goes all the way back to 1924.

Most of the population (638,645 according to the 2010 census) lives along the valley of the 1,000-plus-kilometre river giving the province its name with nearly half in the Upper Valley rich in fruit orchards – 825 kilometres separate the provincial capital of Viedma on the Atlantic coast from the largest city, the tourist centre of San Carlos de Bariloche in the Andes lake district. Of the 15 cities in the 13 departments with populations of five digits or more, four top 50,000 – Bariloche (112,887), Cipoletti (85,161), General Roca (81,534) and Viedma (52,789, all 2010 census data). The mayor of each responds to a different party – Bariloche to Weretilneck’s JSRN, Cipoletti to Elisa Carrió’s Civic Coalition, General Roca to Kirchnerism (Soria) while Viedma is Radical (José Luis Foulkes, related to the late 1983-89 president Raúl Alfonsín, who died 10 years ago last Sunday). Viedma (founded in 1779) was Alfonsín’s eccentric 1987 choice to be Argentina’s new capital while Bariloche boasts the INVAP science hub as well as Nahuel Huapi lake, tourist infrastructure (Llao Llao Hotel) and ski resorts. Otherwise let’s see what happens tomorrow.

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Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.

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