Argentine Politics: Macri’s victory a blow to Cristina?

2011 is an electoral year for Argentina and the question is whether the widow president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s approval ratings will remain at the current 45 percent to allow her to win her reelection bid next October 23. Argentines will go to the polls at least five times by year’s end to cast their votes in state primaries, national primaries, governor and state legislator elections, city and city legislators elections, presidential and mid-term congressional elections, and run-off elections for governors, the mayor of the city of Buenos Aires, and presidential elections.

This is certainly a busy electoral year. Each of the five elections is a stress test for kirchenerismo and Fernandez’s presidential bid. While the outcome of elections in the provinces of Tierra del Fuego, La Rioja, Misiones, Neuquén, Salta y Catamarca showed strong support for Fernandez de Kirchner’s candidates, the support Mauricio Macri received in the city of Buenos Aires in his reelection bid as mayor evidenced an expected and significant blow to Fernandez’s camp. True, voters in Buenos Aires do not behave like voters in the rest of Argentina and the comfortable victory by Macri’s party, Propuesta Republicana (PRO), over Danile Filmus last Sunday does not guarantee a strong performance by Cristina Fernandez’s competitors next October. A run-off election between Macri and Filmus is scheduled for June 31. However, PRO’s performance signals concerns for Cristina Fernadez’s kirchenerismo camp.

For one, PRO’s 20 percent vote difference in the Buenos Aires election with Daniel Filmus, Cristina’s pick for mayor running under the Frente para la Victoria (FPV) banner, shows PRO’s consolidation in one of Argentina’s most important political centers. In July 10’s elections, the incumbent Macri obtained 830 thousand votes which represents a four percent gain compared to the votes he obtained in the first round of elections for Buenos Aires’ mayoralty in 2007. Moreover, PRO’s list for the city’s legislature maintained the 44 percent share of support it obtained in the 2007 electoral contest electing 16 legislators, 2 more than in the previous elections. In addition, PRO lists won the majority of the votes for district councils (juntas comunales) in each of the citiy’s 15 districts (comunas). This includes victories in workers’ districts in the southern part of the city, traditionally seen as kirchenerismo’s support base.

Meanwhile, Cristina Fernandez’s anointed candidate Senator Daniel Filmus, a former Minister of Education under Nestor Kirchner’s government and running the Frente por la Victoria (FPV) ticket in Buenos Aires, did not perform as the government and its followers expected. Filmus gained 18 percent more votes that in the 2007 election, when he also confronted Macri. This significant variation in voter’s support and the 489 thousand votes obtained this time, however, were not enough to undermine PRO’s predominance in Buenos Aires’ politics. Filmus and the kirchenerismo tried to convince the public throughout the campaign that they would obtain important electoral gains in the city, which would allow them to boast kirchenerismo’s electoral strength and thick skin. Sunday’s elections were a blow to that idea. Macri prevailed in a camp familiar to him, and his victory evidences Argentines fatigue with the k political and economic model. Despite strong growth and rising internal demand, the government’s manipulation of key figures like inflation, government’s interference in corporate affairs increasing the state’s presence in corporate boards where nationalized pension funds have stakes, and a highly interventionist model may be starting to have political consequences. As the economy temperature increases to boiling levels, the government’s self-confidence in its electoral strength is undermined.

PRO’s victory in Buenos Aires boosts the party’s confidence to continue campaigning for the national legislature, where a strong performance is likely. The July 31 face-off between Macri and Filmus, probably preceded by a candidate’s debate common in the provincial and city levels but rare at the presidential level, will attest PRO’s muscle and confirm how weak kirchenerismo actually is. A strong showdown favoring Macri will weaken Cristina’s electoral position down the line. Blows to the k camp in other provinces, like in Santa Fe next July 24 or Cordoba in early August, will certainly increase fears in Cristinia Fernandez’s entourage about the un-likelihood of an easy reelection bid. The major showdown will come in a primary election scheduled for August 13, proxy for a popularity contents because all candidates have been chosen already by their parties. Should the opposition join forces around a single candidate, PRO’s recent performance may actually pose a threat to Fernandez’s reelection bid. For now, PRO’s strength in Buenos Aires is unquestionable.

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