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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 30-03-2019 08:17

What if Cristina doesn’t run?

There is one possible scenario that could be devastating for the president’s political aspirations: Cristina choosing to drop out of the race.

Trying to come to a logical conclusion as to who would be the ideal candidate to vote for in this year’s presidential election is becoming harder by the day, as the economic failure of the Mauricio Macri administration threatens to become an outright collapse. Macri’s razorthin victory over Daniel Scioli in 2015 – who represented Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s last-ditch effort to perpetuate her power structure – came with a mandate the president has been unable to fully acknowledge and fulfill. While pursuing and punishing corruption was fundamental for a substantial portion of the electorate, a reorganisation of the national economy that put Argentina finally on a sustainable path to progress, integrated into the global community, and, most importantly, with low inflation, would’ve guaranteed re-election. Overestimating himself, Macri bragged about the ease with which he would tackle inflation while referring to his economic cabinet as “the best team in 50 years.” Tellingly, not a single one of them remains in the government today. Inflation is high and growing, while a rabid dollar threatens governability. The economy is in freefall and the International Monetary Fund is currently in charge.

If Macri can still dream about re-election it is because of the growing popularity of his main political rival, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. After the first few years of the Macri presidency, his star political advisor, Jaime Durán Barba, along with Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña laid out the foundations for their permanent electoral strategy: polarisation with CFK while renouncing a broader coalition with sectors of the so-called ‘Rational Peronists.’ The ruling Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition demonstrated it chose the right play when it managed to virtually defeat Cristina in the 2017 midterms elections in the battleground province of Buenos Aires, the former president’s political bastion, with a practically unknown candidate, Esteban Bullrich. At the time, political analysts noted that CFK’s 37 percent tally in the country’s most populous province translated to a “hard ceiling” of 20 percentage points at the national level. Macri, on the other hand, was sitting on a “floor” of some 30 percentage points, many of which opted for Cambiemos given their loathing of the former president and anything remotely tied to her, including any and all Peronistas.

The year before last, 2017, was also a strong one from an economic perspective, with GDP rebounding to nearly 3 percent and inflation dropping below 25 percent. After a tough 2016 where the government blamed the Kirchnerites for the economic mess they inherited, Macri’s promises were beginning to materialise as output rose and the Judiciary continued to pursue corruption cases against Fernández de Kirchner and her acolytes. However, the slow motion train-wreck that began on December 28, 2017, as Peña and a few others publicly humiliated then-Central Bank governor Federico Sturzenegger claiming they would prioritise growth over inflation revealed that at least part of that year’s bonanza had been a farce. By keeping the value of the peso artificially high throughout the year, the nefarious effects of the pass-through effect of the value of the dollar onto goods and services was limited, allowing inflation to drop while the stock market doubled in value as investors flocked to the country. In order to keep the dollar contained, Sturzenegger allowed a massive ball of short-term debt, known as Lebacs, to balloon out of control. As the global economy hit a rough patch, Argentina imploded.

That economic implosion lasts until today, along with the winning strategy of antagonising with Cristina. But it has allowed the current senator for Buenos Aires Province to slowly but surely begin to eat away at President Macri’s electoral lead. That “hard ceiling” was easily pierced as people’s pockets were ravaged time and time again by hikes in public service costs, which in turn pushed inflation higher. Layoffs led unemployment to grow, and Macri’s promises of “zero poverty” and low inflation went out the window.

Several respected pollsters are beginning to suggest Cristina could beat Macri in October. Until recently, the mainstream scenario was one where practically every major so-called Rational Peronist would overcome the president in a run-off – but not a single one of them would make it that far. CFK, on the other hand, would suffer a humiliating defeat in the unavoidable run-off. As Cristina grew, Mauricio’s approval ratings began to suffer, even as Federal Judge Claudio Bonadio continued to indict her on different corruption accusations that, for most of society, appear believable.

As things stand, Macri’s chances of victory are waning, to the point where several analysts have suggested he should step aside so that political wunderkind María Eugenia Vidal, the governor of Buenos Aires Province, or Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, Buenos Aires City mayor, take his place. The Civic Radical Union (UCR), key members of his coalition, have voted to split provincial elections from the national vote so as to avoid losing votes due to association with the president. Some are even calling for a break with Macri’s PRO party.

Throughout the ranks of the opposition, the impossible is beginning to feel plausible. Mediocre candidates from an approval rating perspective, such as Renewal Front leader Sergio Massa or Salta Province Governor Juan Manuel Urtubey, feel they have a real shot at the Casa Rosada. Others like Senator Miguel Ángel Pichetto are trying to broker broader deals to oust Macri. And then there’s Roberto Lavagna, Néstor Kirchner’s former economy minister who could stand as a national unity candidate bringing together Peronists, Radicals, and those disillusioned with Macri.

However, there is one possible scenario that could be devastating for the president’s political aspirations: Cristina choosing to drop out of the race. If the former head of state decided to negotiate with Lavagna, or a unity candidate supported by the Peronists, giving her a certain number of deputies and senators, along with Cabinet posts so as to guarantee some level of real power, she could honourably step aside. Fernández de Kirchner already suggested this could be the case last week, when she unveiled a theatrical video announcing her daughter Florencia had to go to Cuba to get treatment for a disease that would render her unable to fly, asking the Judiciary to keep her hands off her. Claiming she needs to focus on her daughter’s recovery, while building a power base within a structure that would count on her tacit support, could give a Peronist-led coalition the votes needed to beat the president, while granting Cristina a certain level of immunity, and allowing her to pass on what promises to be a rhetorically violent campaign.

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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