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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 23-09-2023 05:03

Will Mendoza be the bulldozer?

Whichever way Mendoza goes, it will be the last throw of the dice before general election day on October 22.

Tomorrow’s provincial elections in Mendoza might just herald the final outcome of next month’s nationwide showdown. Will Juntos por el Cambio complete a hat-trick (also a hat-trick for its Radical wing) by crowning the momentum from last Sunday’s upset first-round win in Chaco and from the previous weekend’s Santa Fe landslide with Senator Alfredo Cornejo’s return to the governorship he held between 2015 and 2019? Or will libertarian Javier Milei have the last laugh with the underestimated PRO breakaway candidate Omar De Marchi in this deeply conservative province – a result almost nobody seems to be expecting but after Milei swept almost 45 percent of the Mendoza vote in last month’s PASO primaries (some 50 percent above his nationwide average), how could it possibly come as a surprise? This columnist’s own hunch is that it will be De Marchi (which clashes violently with his other risky forecast that Patricia Bullrich will eventually win the Presidency).

Whichever way Mendoza goes, it will be the last throw of the dice before general election day on October 22 – this was defined by last Sunday’s first-round victory (the result of Chaco following the national rules rather than requiring an absolute majority). Otherwise the last voting before the entire country goes to the polls would have been the widely expected Chaco run-off on October 8 (Juan Domingo Perón’s birthday) and while Mendoza will be a bonus for either Bullrich or Milei, this might have given some final momentum to the Unión por la Patria government – despite the adverse results of both the June 18 primary and last Sunday, Chaco’s three Peronist gubernatorial candidates did outvote Juntos por el Cambio by 48.9 to 46.13 percent (even if the splinters cost outgoing Governor Jorge Capitanich his fourth term) so that a runoff could have gone the national government’s way.

But that did not happen and Mendoza has yet to vote so for now the momentum belongs to Bullrich. The Chaco win was sweet not only because a run-off had been seen as virtually inevitable (last week’s column was not alone in reaching this conclusion) and because it was arguably the most difficult of the three provinces voting this month. At a national level the main value of this triumph was to show up the limits of buying votes after all the money thrown into the Chaco election (impossible to quantify at this point) – an ominous sign for the ‘plan platita’ being so frantically pursued by Economy Minister Sergio Massa.

As things now stand, Chaco is a potential game-changer for Patricia Bullrich for reasons already pursued in last week’s column, restoring a swagger to her step and pep to her voice to regain her pre-PASO identity in a way previous initiatives had failed to do – neither the recruitment of Carlos Melconian (a good salesman of economic jargon but potentially overshadowing the candidate and crowding out the rest of the team) nor of Santiago Kovadloff (a worthy but also intensely boring old sage). The change is essentially strategic – taking the battle to Kirchnerism as the people who have inflicted the real damage on Argentina in the past two decades, instead of losing her way with sideway glances at Milei who remains a speculative possibility for the future. Hard to make it into a run-off without personifying polarisation herself.

But while applauding this change of tack, this column dissents with what is increasingly becoming a central plank of this strategy – this bizarre notion of a pact between Milei and Massa as basically the same, a paradox with which most pundits seem to have fallen in love. The strength of this theory lies less in the flimsy evidence than in the fact that it suits almost everybody. The advantages for Bullrich should not need explaining but Milei also shows no interest in shedding an image of being soft on Massa if that is the price of easing the ideal opponent into the run-off – the man responsible for accelerating inflation and economic chaos. Massa also potentially gains from being seen as interchangeable with Milei because if voters cannot spot the difference between the two five-letter surnames beginning with “M,” he might win back some of the Peronist votes lost in the primary almost by accident.

And what is the evidence for this pact? Proponents of this theory thought they had a smoking gun with libertarian deputies voting for Massa’s income tax reform last week but how is Milei not going to vote for tax cuts? It is the chronically high-taxing Peronists who need to explain their abrupt conversion to supply-side economics. The other evidence offered is a handful of names linked to Massa cropping up in La Libertad Avanza lists for Congress but these could so easily be opportunists switching from yesterday’s winner to tomorrow’s rather than systematic infiltration while the Peronist component in the Milei phenomenon seems much more strongly represented by figures rooted in Carlos Menem (yet another five-letter surname beginning with ‘M,’ without even mentioning Macri). Milei and Massa represent such diametrically opposite visions of the state that any idea of a pact between them seems nonsense.

Perhaps not worth looking any further ahead until after the Mendoza results in what remains a three-cornered fight where a couple of percent can make all the difference for the runoff (hence Massa’s continuing chances in the midst of disaster since his plan platita does not need to fool many). A good week for Bullrich but amid all the categories into which voters are classified such as age, gender, class etc. one difference seems paramount – between being in and out of the system and there an anti-system candidate like Milei can only gain. 

In conclusion, some nuts and bolts for Chaco and Mendoza. In Chaco some 720,000 citizens out of an electorate of just over a million voted for seven gubernatorial candidates with Radical governor-elect Leandro Zdero winning over 315,000 votes (46.13 percent) and outgoing Governor Capitanich some 285,000 (41.74 percent) in a highly polarised race. The other candidates were Resistencia Peronist Mayor Gustavo Martinez with five percent, libertarian Alfredo Rodríguez on 3.43 percent and former Peronist lieutenant-governor Juan Carlos Bacileff Ivanoff with 2.14 percent while libertarian Rubén Galassi (0.84 percent) and Germán Báez (0.72 percent) of the Trotskyist Partido Obrero were way behind – the libertarian challenge without Milei’s name on the ballot was thus negligible while the left is surprisingly weak in possibly Argentina’s poorest province.

This column could write at length about the impact of the Cecilia Strzyzowski femicide and Patricia Bullrich’s audacious invasion of the turf of the Sena clan accused of killing her but much has been written on this elsewhere and we must leave some space for Mendoza.

Cornejo and De Marchi face three rivals when competing for the votes of the almost 1.5 million Mendoza citizens eligible – Peronist Omar Parisi, leftist Lautaro Jiménez and the Green Party’s Mario Vadillo. Parisi is the handpicked choice of the ultra-Kirchnerite La Cámpora although neither his age (65) nor image (a member of the ultra-conservative Democrat Party until 12 years ago) nor party label (Frente Elegí Mendoza) would suggest it – Kirchnerism needs to lie low after falling below 17 percent in both the June 11 provincial and the August 13 national primaries. Back in June the five candidates fared individually as follows – 26 percent for Cornejo (topping Bullrich’s running-mate Luis Petri with 16.7 percent within Juntos por el Cambio), 20.3 percent for De Marchi, 6.8 percent for Parisi (with three Peronist rivals sharing 10 percent), 4.81 percent for Vadillo and 4.23 percent for Jiménez. But then the national PASO primaries have come along since then with the Milei vote a bigger shock in Mendoza than most places. Without any further speculation let us 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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