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Wake-up call in Argentina

Primary results constitute a serious warning for President Fernández de Kirchner

The primary elections held on Sunday in Argentina have left a bitter aftertaste for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The vote was intended as a procedural step toward organizing the electoral slates of candidates that the political parties will run in the legislative elections on October 27, but it has inevitably been perceived as a plebiscite on the government’s performance. And the outcome is far from encouraging. The “Kirchnerite” current of Peronism has received the worst results in the 10 years it has been in power, so that the president now sees her chances of re-election to another term sharply diminished.

The Kirchnerites, the official party of the Victory Front bloc (FPV), lost in 14 of the country’s 24 districts, including the five principal ones (the provinces of Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Santa Fe, Mendoza and the federal capital district). The defeat even extended to long-term bastions of Kirchnerism, such as Santa Cruz and Chubut in the far south. Sunday’s primaries also brought a rising star into view. Sergio Massa, head of Fernández’s Cabinet before distancing himself from her, won in the strategic province of Buenos Aires, which accounts for 37 percent of the national vote. It remains to be seen whether his leadership challenge is a flash in the pan; but if he manages to consolidate and unify the various currents of “critical” Peronism, Massa may put an end to the hegemony of Kirchnerism in time for the presidential elections in 2015.

Nimble, ambiguous and with a good performance record as mayor of Tigre. Massa has emerged victorious from a direct tug-of-war with the president — who committed herself full throttle in the campaign for her candidate, Martín Insaurralde. Massa confines himself to a moderate line of rhetoric, promising to reverse Fernández’s attempt at direct control of the country’s judiciary, to put an end to the policy of permanent confrontation, and to control inflation and crime.

The FPV is still the most-voted party at the national level. This is not only true but virtually inevitable, given that it is the only party that ran candidates in all the districts. But the share of the vote it obtained is five points lower (26 percent) than the percentage it achieved in the complicated elections of 2009, and light-years away from the 54 percent that Fernández herself obtained in the 2011 presidential poll.

It is still too soon to draw conclusions. These elections were mere primaries and there are still some months to go before the partial changeover in the legislature and two years until the presidential elections. Furthermore, the opposition remains split. But if the trend that became apparent on Sunday continues, it will be difficult for the Cristinistas to achieve in October the two-thirds of the seats they need in order to change the Constitution and open the door to a third mandate for their leader.

The plan for a grand recasting of Argentina’s political system in accordance with the doctrines of Kirchnerism, the so-called “Project K,” is still waiting in the wings. The climate of confrontation and the many errors of management, especially in the economy, are beginning to take their toll. The prevailing wind seems to be in favor of a necessary change.

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