Argentina’s presidential campaign takes a turn to the right

Minister of Economy Sergio Massa has been chosen by the left-wing Peronist political movement to face off against far-right economist Javier Milei. Both men will also have to contend with whoever emerges victorious from the internal primaries being held by the center-right coalition

Sergio Massa
Sergio Massa in the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace, on July 4, 2022.JUAN MABROMATA (AFP)

Argentina’s 2023 presidential race kicked off this past Sunday, after a dizzying last-minute qualifying round. The left-wing Peronist political movement — which was going to present two rival candidates — changed its mind in the final 24 hours before the registration deadline. La Unión por la Patria [Union for the Homeland] coalition — a renamed version of the ruling coalition — will offer up a single unity candidate for the October 22 elections: Sergio Massa, the incumbent minister of economy, who is steering the country through troubled financial waters.

This decision left a vacuum in the center-left bloc, which has been dominated by the Kirchner family for the past two decades — first by Néstor Kirchner (who governed from 2003 until 2007) and then by his wife, Cristina, who was president from 2007 until 2015. She currently serves as vice president. This shift away from Kirchnerismo underlines the growing weakness of Cristina Kirchner, while also marking a definitive swing to the right.

Massa, a 51-year-old career politician, has been waiting his whole life for this moment. He couldn’t reach the presidency in 2015 with his own political party, but he now hopes that the support of the ruling coalition will help him achieve victory. With well-established ties to big businessmen, bankers and the U.S. Embassy, Massa will now challenge Horacio Rodríguez Larreta — mayor of Buenos Aires and candidate for the center-right opposition coalition Juntos por el Cambio [Together for Change] — for the centrist vote.

However, Rodríguez Larreta must first overcome his coalition’s internal primaries, which will be held on August 13. To get the nomination, he will face off against Patricia Bullrich, the former Minister of Security (2015-2019). Bullrich is more conservative than Rodríguez Larreta, but less so than the ultra-liberal economist Javier Milei, who, for the first time in history, signals the irruption of the far right in an Argentine presidential vote.

At the other end of the ideological arc, the far-left is excited about improving its results if it manages to attract Peronists who are disenchanted with Massa’s leadership. Among them are supporters of the Kirchner family, who see the minister of economy as a traitor. They warn that they won’t vote for him under any circumstances, but the leaders of the Union for the Homeland are betting that these voters will change their minds when the decisive moment arrives on October 22.

Economic management

Massa’s candidacy will put the economy at the center of the electoral debate in Argentina — any negative economic news will work against him. He still hasn’t announced whether he will resign from his ministerial post in order to focus on the campaign, resulting in political attacks from all sides. “The arsonist is running as a firefighter,” Bullrich tweeted sarcastically, once the Peronist presidential ticket became official. Meanwhile, Milei snapped that Massa and Larreta are merely “two sides of the same coin.”

In 2023, inflation in Argentina continued to rise. In May, it reached 114% year-over-year — the highest in more than three decades. The Central Bank’s international reserves are below the minimum amounts needed to maintain fiscal stability. Argentina is now dependent on restructuring its national debt with the International Monetary Fund, so as not to shock the economy, which has been badly damaged by the worst drought in history. In any other country in this condition, choosing the minister of economy to be the presidential candidate would seem like a joke or political suicide. But surprisingly, no one within the Peronist political movement has more support than Massa.

“You wouldn’t understand Argentina,” is the answer that a foreigner may receive when they ask about Massa’s candidacy. Diego Genoud, the author of a biography on Sergio Massa, explains that the minister’s appeal is due to his ability to convey the message that he wants to be true. “He saved us from the worst — that’s the [general] conclusion,” Genoud affirms.

Massa took over the Ministry of Economy in August of last year, in the midst of a currency run that caused the peso to depreciate against the dollar (on the black market) by more than 30% in just two weeks. His arrival to the post temporarily calmed the waters. Massa’s predecessor — Silvina Batakis — was abruptly dismissed from office after just a month in the post.

Massa’s candidacy — announced last Friday night by the Union for the Homeland alliance—– was also a ruthless checkmate for the two other candidates who had been in the running for the nomination: Daniel Scioli — the ambassador to Brazil, supported by President Fernández — and Eduardo de Pedro, the minister of Interior. De Pedro, a member of the so-called “decimated generation,” whose parents were both disappeared by the country’s most-recent military dictatorship (1976-1983), was said to have been Cristina Kirchner’s preferred candidate.

However, de Pedro’s candidacy lasted only 24 hours. The lack of support he received from many mayors and provincial governors, who are key to consolidating power across the South American country, ultimately led to the internal decision to unite the coalition under a single name: Massa. Therein lies another of his qualities, according to Genoud: “Massa has [a level of] support that very few have, because he can get it from antagonistic sectors; he can bring together the State Department and Cristina [Kirchner], water and oil,” he jokes. Meanwhile, Massa’s candidate for vice president — Agustín Rossi, current chief of staff to the president — was hand-picked by Fernández, in another move that reveals how much power Cristina Kirchner has lost.

August primaries

August 13 will be the opportunity to measure the true popular support that each candidate has. The simultaneous (and mandatory) electoral primaries in Argentina will serve to settle the candidacies in some political spaces, such as within the Together for Change movement and the far-left coalition. But they will also offer a national snapshot of the public’s feeling just two months before the presidential elections in October. The latest polls show the public more-or-less evenly divided into thirds, between the center-left Peronist political movement, the center-right Together for Change coalition and Milei’s far-right candidacy.

The far-right had disappointing results in the recent provincial elections, suggesting that Milei’s candidacy may deflate under the pressure of a full-blow presidential campaign. However, in line with what happened in Brazil with Jair Bolsonaro and in the United States with Donald Trump, his electoral proposals have marked the national debate in recent months. Milei is promising to dollarize the economy, eliminate the Central Bank, privatize state companies and loosen up gun control.

Milei’s rise in the polls is a setback for the center-right Together for Change coalition, forcing the more moderate candidate to toughen up their rhetoric. Bullrich, for instance, has positioned her speech under the word “order.” For months, she’s been promising a strong hand against crime and drug trafficking, while also assuring the public that she will put an end to protestors blocking streets and highways.

Rodríguez Larreta, meanwhile, has chosen to surround himself with well-known conservative figures, such as Governor Gerardo Morales, who is his vice-presidential candidate in the internal primaries. The governor of the northern province of Jujuy is under scrutiny for how he cracked down on recent protests that were held by workers to demand better wages. Larreta has also included several right-wing figures on his list of senators, such as liberal economist José Luis Espert — a former ally of Milei — and leading evangelist Cynthia Hotton.

Whoever wins Argentina’s presidential elections, the next government will certainly be farther to the right than the current one.

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