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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 17-08-2019 11:45

Under the volcano

Far from deciding the election, Buenos Aires Province was just one of the 14 provinces giving Fernández an absolute majority, even if obviously the most important.

My return from six weeks in Europe last weekend could not exactly be described as a soft landing. On top of all the alarm bells ringing so stridently in the local media in the week since last Sunday’s shock PASO result, I find myself confronted by a purely individual professional problem – having devoted the first half of this year to a 26-part electoral gazetteer covering every province, how am I to occupy the 11 Saturdays still to go before the October 27 elections, if almost everybody is already saying: “Game Over”?

Three quotes here perhaps illustrate the obstacles to detailed analysis. Joseph Conrad described the universe as a nightmare knitting machine which “ought to embroider but it goes on knitting … And the most withering thought is that the infamous thing has made itself; made itself without thought, without conscience without foresight, without eyes, without heart” – last Sunday’s PASO similarly comes across as coarse knitting with no fine threads.

Following the 1951 British election returning Winston Churchill to 10 Downing Street, the Labour politician Herbert Morrison opined that the British electorate had meant to tell the Clement Atlee government off in small letters but had ended up spelling it out in capitals – that might also apply to last Sunday. The third quote is surely the best-known of the trident and should need no further elaboration – Bill Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid.”

But since my previous series was also designed to avoid overlap with other columnists – giving the big picture alongside the main objective of covering a neglected hinterland – I will stick to that course today, looking at the PASO primary results from a regional rather than national perspective.

No easy task because President Mauricio Macri’s meltdown was truly nationwide (his comfortable wins in this city and Córdoba notwithstanding) – the old cliché about all elections being decided in Buenos Aires Province (where Peronist victor Alberto Fernández was only three percent above his national average and Macri a couple of points below) was even less valid than usual. Far from deciding the election, Buenos Aires Province was just one of the 14 provinces giving Fernández an absolute majority, even if obviously the most important.

Even the “It’s the economy, stupid” approach does not seem to go all the way towards explaining the debacle. There can be little doubt that the endless stagflation from Macri’s drive to make this country live within its means destroyed the confidence of a majority of voters but what happened in the two pockets escaping recession – the provinces of Neuquén with its Vaca Muerta shale and Jujuy with its lithium boom, both of which boasted positive growth rates last year? Dormant for years after their discovery about a decade ago (which prompted the nationalisation of the YPF oil company in 2012), the Vaca Muerta region exploded into action under Macri’s market-friendly policies, playing a major role in turning an energy deficit into surplus, and yet the zone’s response was to give Fernández a bigger margin than in any province except Formosa and Santiago del Estero – fully 40 percent (57 to 17 percent). Macri fared somewhat better in Jujuy (whose Radical Governor Gerardo Morales was comfortably re-elected last June) but was still trounced 46 to 29 percent.

Within the defeat in 22 of the 23 provinces there were some distinct regional variations. Grouping Argentina’s five regions into northern, southern and central belts, we see Macri topping 30 percent in all nine midland provinces of the Pampas and Cuyo (Midwest) regions, except San Juan, but falling short of that mark in all the five Patagonian provinces and 10 northern provinces except La Rioja, even in Radical-ruled Jujuy as we have seen. On the other hand, the victorious Fernández cleared 30 percent everywhere (even if only just in Córdoba) while commanding an absolute majority in 14 provinces.

The contrast with the PASO primaries of 2015 (which Macri also lost, if far less disastrously) is more apparent than real – Peronist reunification explains most of the difference. Macri’s percentage last Sunday was actually higher than in 2015 – 32 as against 30 percent. Mathematically the Fernández-Fernández ticket should have garnered almost 60 percent of the vote after bringing dissident Peronist Sergio Massa back to the fold (if we add Massa’s 20.6 percent to the 2015 presidential candidate Daniel Scioli’s 38.7 percent in the PASO of that year) but less than half that 2015 Massa vote followed its leader last Sunday – even attributing all the eight percent won by the Federal Consensus of Massa’s economic guru Roberto Lavagna to the man tipped to be the next Lower House Speaker fails to redistribute all that 20.6 percent. In any case the reality of voting transfers is far more complex – Lavagna (virtually a creation of businessmen resisting the changes sought by Macri) clearly gained at least as much from disenchanted government voters as from former Massa supporters.

But if we turn from national to Buenos Aires provincial voting, Massa comes much closer to providing a complete explanation. In the 2017 senatorial voting, the 34.1 percent of former two-term president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (now her namesake’s running-mate) and Massa’s 15.3 percent total 49.4 percent, accounting for almost all the 52.5 percent of last Sunday’s Frente de Todos gubernatorial candidate Axel Kicillof. It is interesting to note that Kicillof (despite being a parachuted candidate who contributed to underfunding the province while national economy minister in 2013-2015) overshot his alliance’s presidential vote in BA Province region by a similar margin to his highly popular rival Governor María Eugenia Vidal. Yet topping Macri by two percent fell disappointingly short of the seven percent in 2015 which was so decisive at both national and provincial level. Back then Macri narrowed Scioli’s PASO lead from seven to three percent in the first round but still lost – the Vidal win was the game-changer which boosted confidence and momentum.

“Game Over” seems the general conclusion (even if panic can cut both ways if it comes) but at least one election remains open – here in this Federal Capital (the Mendoza provincial election on September 29 also might or might not be close). City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta’s 14-percent lead might look safe enough but the prospect of a run-off would bring back uncomfortable memories of 2015 when he edged Martín Lousteau by just 3.28 percent (especially since now having Lousteau as his senatorial candidate merely improved his vote from 45.5 to 46.3 percent when mathematically their 2015 votes would total 72 percent).

Anyway, all that is in the past – the present won last Sunday and we must tremble for the future.

If the provincial analysis of the first half of 2019 looked inward, my new series starting next Saturday plans to look outward to the rest of the world’s take on Argentina.

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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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