A Banner Night and a Brighter Future for Argentina’s President Macri

Sunday’s legislative primaries to choose candidates for the October 22 general election represented an inflection point for the administration of Argentine president Mauricio Macri (background on the primaries is provided here). He and his followers knew they would either be toasting their good fortune and heightened prospects for six additional years in power or drowning their sorrows due to the heightened prospects of only being in office for two more years as a lame duck. To paraphrase Bill Murray in Stripes, on Sunday night it was, by and large, party time, Italian style, in Macri’s Cambiemos alliance’s campaign headquarters in Buenos Aires.

Macri’s banner night was based on one tie and three distinct triumphs. First, Cambiemos weakened former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) as a major political actor via a virtual tie in the election’s most highly watched race in the province of Buenos Aires. Second, Cambiemos was victorious in all five provinces where it controls the governorship, provinces that together contain more than half of the country’s population. Third, Cambiemos bested a half-dozen influential Peronist governors. Fourth, all together, Macri’s Cambiemos alliance was victorious in 11 of the country’s 24 provinces and won the largest share of the national vote of any of the national-level political forces in the Chamber of Deputies elections (which were held in all 24 provinces, while the Senate elections were held in 8).

First, in the night’s marquee event in the province of Buenos Aires, where almost 40 percent of the Argentine population resides, Cambiemos’ Senate candidate, Esteban Bullrich, tied CFK at 34 percent, while the Cambiemos Chamber of Deputies list defeated CFK’s list, 35 percent to 32 percent (with 96 percent of the votes counted). These results weakened, but did not eliminate, CFK as a viable political force. They set the stage for a rematch in the October 22 general election, when Macri will be provided with another opportunity to vanquish CFK, just as CFK will be provided with another opportunity to rejuvenate her political brand and base of power. Also of note, in Santa Cruz, which was governed between 1991 and 2003 by CFK’s deceased spouse, Néstor Kirchner, and where her sister-in-law, Alicia Kirchner, is now governor, Cambiemos trounced CFK’s Frente para la Victoria, 46 percent to 29 percent.

Second, Cambiemos presently controls five provinces, with two governed by Macri’s Propuesta Federal (PRO), the city of Buenos Aires and province of Buenos Aires, and three governed by the PRO’s principal minority partner in the Cambiemos alliance, the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR): Corrientes, Jujuy, and Mendoza. In the Chamber of Deputies elections, Cambiemos was victorious in all five districts, including a 50 percent to 21 percent to 13 percent shellacking of a CFK-backed list and a dissident Cambiemos list in Macri’s bailiwick of the city of Buenos Aires (where he was mayor for eight years prior to assuming office as president in 2015).

Third, Peronists (of different stripes) govern 14 of Argentina’s 24 provinces, with the remaining 5 governed by provincial-level parties. On Sunday, Cambiemos candidates defeated those backed by Peronist governors in 6 of these 15 provinces (in one, Tierra del Fuego, Cambiemos finished second and the governor’s list third), including the major provinces of Córdoba and Entre Ríos. Most of the vanquished governors (Juan Schiaretti in Córdoba, Gustavo Bordet in Entre Ríos, Rosana Bertone in Tierra del Fuego, and, potentially, even Carlos Verna in La Pampa and Alberto Rodríguez Saá in San Luis) will now be more open to cooperating in the Argentine Congress (via the senators and deputies who respond to them) with the Macri administration. This is based on the belief, demonstrated by the Primaria Abiertas Simultáeas Obligatorias (PASO) results, that Macri is more popular in their province than they are and also that, if they want to retain the governorship in 2019 for either themselves or allies, they are better off working with President Macri than against him. Macri’s Cambiemos also was victorious in Neuquén (where the country’s massive Vaca Muerta shale play is located), which has been governed continuously since the return to democracy in 1983 by the Movimiento Popular Neuquino (MPN).

Fourth, in the Chamber of Deputies elections, Macri’s Cambiemos was victorious in 11 of the country’s 24 provinces, provinces that together contain 70 percent of the Argentine population. These results underscore the increasing consolidation of Cambiemos as a viable national force, increasingly able to go head-to-head nationwide against Peronism, which for 70 years has been the unquestioned dominant political movement in Argentina. At the national level, Cambiemos won 37 percent of the Chamber of Deputies vote. In second and third were lists of followers of CFK (Unidad Ciudadana and allied lists) with 22 percent of the vote and of 2015 presidential candidate Sergio Massa (1País and allied party lists) with 9 percent. Disparate lists of Peronists not explicitly aligned with either CFK or Massa combined to win 16 percent of the vote across the country. The far left Frente de Izquierda y de los Trabajadores (FIT) garnered 4 percent, with the remainder scattered among a host of minor national and provincial parties, only two of which (the governing Frente Cívico por Santiago in Santiago del Estero and Frente Renovador de la Concordia in Misiones) surpassed 1 percent of the vote nationally.

Many foreign and domestic investors have been considering investments in Argentina, but waiting to pull the trigger until they had a better idea of whether President Macri would be able to continue with his reform efforts to right the Argentine ship, or if Cristina Fernández could possibly return to office. The results of the August 13 primary suggest that Cristina Fernández will not be returning to the Casa Rosada (the Argentine White House), and that Macri should at the present time be considered the odds-on favorite to win the 2019 presidential election. Furthermore, many Peronist governors and mayors, believing that Macri has a very good prospect of being reelected in 2019, will now be more likely to cut individual deals with him (e.g., their support in Congress in exchange for his administration’s financial support for the province or municipality they govern) and less likely to enthusiastically rally behind a Peronist presidential challenger to Macri in the 2019 presidential contest.

While there is always the potential for political support to shift over the next 10 weeks between the August 13 primary and the October 22 general election, recent history suggests any shifts are likely to be modest. And, furthermore, to the extent there are shifts, they are on average more likely to benefit Macri’s Cambiemos alliance than candidates backed by CFK, Massa, or the Peronist governors.

The only potential black fly in Macri’s chardonnay is a CFK victory in the province of Buenos Aires on October 22. However, the August 13 results have signaled to both elites and voters that CFK is vulnerable, and it would not be surprising for some to shift their support to Bullrich between now and October 22, out of political convenience (e.g., elite deals with the Macri administration), as a result of political strategy (e.g., a view that Bullrich represents the best hope for diminishing CFK’s power and influence), or due to instrumental voting (e.g., modest economic improvements over the next 10 weeks cause them to change their opinion of the Macri administration).

While nothing is written in stone when it comes to elections, the August 13 primary results have more likely than not foreshadowed an impressive victory for President Mauricio Macri and his Cambiemos alliance in the October 22 legislative elections. In doing so, they have notably increased the odds that Macri will remain in office and that his pro-market policies will remain in force until at least December 2023, if not longer.

Mark P. Jones is a senior associate with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Photo Credit: CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images

Mark P. Jones