Argentina goes to the polls tomorrow after a campaign that delivered no surprises but provided a few involuntary indications of what the future may bring.
Although nobody will be elected in tomorrow’s primaries, the election will provide an X-ray of where the public stands after a strange couple of years. Ones that included a sharp devaluation of the peso, a spike in inflation and a stubborn recession, but fell short of spiralling into a fully-fledged political and economic crisis.
The political novelties of this year happened before this campaign had even started. Despite being the front-runner, former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner moved herself down the ticket into the vice-presidential slot and anointed her former Cabinet chief Alberto Fernández – a man who was critical of her last few years in office – in her stead. Meanwhile, President Mauricio Macri – who for most of his presidency has brushed off any contact with the opposition Peronists – picked Miguel Ángel Pichetto, a symbol of all things Peronist, as his running-mate.
Those are the moves that have defined the political scenario Argentines will grade tomorrow at the polls, in a vote that will disqualify a few of the candidates with smaller followings. The ballot serves not only as an overall dress rehearsal for October, but also to draw the lines that will define the new campaign that starts on Monday morning.
The campaign has helped us to see in broad daylight that Argentina’s political system is yet to grasp (or at least express in public) the severity of the country’s economic condition and the tough choices it will have to face, sooner rather than later. This last week, marked by China’s devaluation of the yuan amid an escalating economic war with the United States, was yet another indication that Argentina is as fragile as it can get and that anything that happens abroad will hit the country head on – and given the world’s current leadership things will most likely continue to happen.
This final sprint has also produced a couple of hints as to how the two favourites would tackle the day, should they win.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, as the curtainraiser keynote speaker at the opposition’s closing rally in Rosario on Wednesday, anticipated that “we have to be united because what lies ahead will be difficult,” pointing toward the economic disarray she claims the Macri administration will leave behind. This is exactly the contrary of what Macri did when he took over from her in December 2015, not stressing enough the alleged burden he would receive.
Macri’s own campaign stops have included a vehement defence of his administration – not just the presidency but his stint as Buenos Aires city mayor more than a decade ago. Unlike Alberto Fernández, who boasts of not receiving any coaching to elaborate his public persona, Macri and Buenos Aires Governor María Eugenia Vidal are coached to the extreme. In the second half of his presidency, Macri has systematically shown off his emotions to appeal to the public, just as his government’s economic plan started to collapse. He shed tears at the Teatro Colón gala during the G20 Leaders Summit in Buenos Aires last November and he shouted his speech to Congress during this year’s State-of-the-Union speech in March. This week Macri yelled again, before tearing up a little at his final rally in Vicente López on Thursday evening.
During his closing rally in Buenos Aires City, earlier in the week, he recalled his first steps as mayor of the nation’s capital. A downpour had flooded vast sections of the city, he remembered, explaining that journalists asked him what his government would do about it. It will take four years, he replied to them, for anti-flooding works underground to conclude. So there would be flooding until then. And after four years, there was no more flooding, he shouted. The crowd loved it, cheering wildly.
The line, a product of his ultra-professional campaign laboratory, was brilliant. But now, in the fourth year of his administration, Argentines are inundated with different problems: inflation, recession and unemployment. Macri claims he has done the underground work that’s necessary in order for the floodwaters of recession to recede. But the analogy has a flaw: the president did not warn Argentines beforehand, back in 2015, that the crisis waters would rise. On the contrary, during that campaign, he promised refreshing rainfalls of harmless, job-creating investments. Why should voters believe him now?
The opposition, however, are his rivals and the
overall feeling, however, is that that potential
government is an accident waiting to happen.
Alberto Fernández tackled that feeling directly
during the rally in Rosario, as he followed Cristina, though it came with a faulty choice of words,
ones widely associated with Carlos Menem and
the 1990s: “I will never let you down.”