Crisis-hit Peronism fears protest vote in Argentina’s presidential primaries

The South American country is holding a vote to decide the contenders for the presidential elections, amidst an inflation rate of 115% and the brutal death of an 11-year-old girl

A scene from a rally of the General Confederation of Labor with presidential contender Sergio Massa, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, August 8, 2023.
A scene from a rally of the General Confederation of Labor with presidential contender Sergio Massa, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, August 8, 2023.Natacha Pisarenko (AP)

Argentines vote Sunday in a primary election that will act as a bellwether ahead of October general elections. In Argentina, every political party holds its primary on the same day, meaning the vote has a similar effect of a first round. More than 35 million Argentines are eligible to vote, and voting is mandatory. This year, a record-high 22 candidates are running from 15 different coalitions. Seven of them have more than one candidate, but only the winner of the primary will stand in the presidential election. To be eligible for the race, a candidate must also obtain at least 1.5% of the total votes. While the results of Sunday’s primaries are not definitive, they are a crucial battle in the race for the presidency. The winners of the primaries — known in Argentina as PASO — will run for the presidency on October 22. A second round, if necessary, will be held on November 19.

The primary elections are set to test the center-left Peronist coalition currently in power, which is experiencing a popularity crisis. President Alberto Fernández’s disapproval rating exceeds 70% and rejection of him is so unanimous that he decided not to stand for reelection. This is one of the most unpredictable elections in the country’s recent history, and there is no clear front-runner. The government could be hit by a huge protest vote similar to that of Mauricio Macri in the primaries four years ago, when he lost by a landslide to Fernández. That result was repeated in the general elections two months later, albeit by a narrower margin.

In the PASO elections, the ruling Peronist coalition, Unión por la Patria (Union for the Homeland), may be boosted by a divided opposition split: the center-right coalition Juntos por el Cambio (Together for Change) — whose leadership contest is between the mayor of Buenos Aires, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, and former security minister Patricia Bullrich — and the far-right party led by Javier Milei. Polls predict that the support for Union for the Homeland will be below the 32% obtained by Macri in the 2019 primaries, when he was 15 points behind Fernandez. However, the division of the opposition vote could conceal the Peronist loss of support if its pre-candidate, Economy Minister Sergio Massa, receives the most votes.

The Peronist party has placed its faith in Massa to hold on to power and hopes to avoid losing votes to the left with the pre-candidacy of the social leader Juan Grabois. From a political perspective, the decision to name Massa as candidate appears risky. During his tenure as minister, inflation has climbed to 115.6% on an annual basis — in a fierce race with wages, which have been outpaced — and the Argentine peso has plummeted to record levels despite the drain of international reserves to prop it up. His election as pre-candidate is proof of the difficulties faced by the Peronists — but without Massa it could have been worse. In the Argentine people’s memory, “worse” means going back to the last period of hyperinflation in 1989, when prices soared by the hour.

Political scientist María Celeste Ratto points out another reason why the leading Peronist figures, such as Vice President Cristina Kirchner, are backing Massa: when it comes to voting, the economic climate plays less of a role than party allegiance. In other words, it is unlikely that an Argentine who identifies a Peronist will vote for the Juntos por el Cambio coalition, and vice versa, regardless of the amount of money they have in their pockets. This is because Argentines have become accustomed to a life of crisis and elevated levels of inflation, she says.

“In Argentina, the most influential factor in voting is party identity. This is followed by the management of the economy and then other factors such as age, socioeconomic level or gender,” says Ratto. On average, according to the data analyzed by researcher, the impact of the economy on votes ranges between 15% and 20%. If the economy declines beyond what is considered normal in Argentina, the impact is greater. When the partisan rift dominates the public debate, the influence of economic issues drops.

An election campaign banner of running presidential contender Sergio Massa, the current minister of economy, and his running mate Agustin Rossi covers a wall on a street in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, August 9, 2023.
An election campaign banner of running presidential contender Sergio Massa, the current minister of economy, and his running mate Agustin Rossi covers a wall on a street in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, August 9, 2023.Natacha Pisarenko (AP)

Protest vote

This Sunday, the Peronist camp will learn whether the severity of the economic crisis has surpassed the resistance threshold of its voters. Indeed, the emergence of a far-right outsider candidate like Milei could lead to unforeseen consequences. Polls forecast that around 20% of the votes will be in favor of the ultra-liberal economist who promises to do away with the Central Bank, dollarize the economy and liberalize the sale of arms and organs.

For months, the electoral campaign has been all about the economy. Massa is at the head of economic affairs, and two of his three main rivals (Rodríguez Larreta and Milei) are economists. Massa blames the crisis on the debt inherited from Macri with the International Monetary Fund and the drought that resulted in losses of more than $20 billion for the agriculture sector in 2023. He uses fear to appeal for votes, assuring that the opposition plans to devalue the currency, slash public spending and repress social protests. Opposition leaders argue that there is no choice and whoever wins will have to reduce the fiscal deficit and remove the current trade restrictions.

Currency tensions escalated on the eve of the election. However, the focus of the campaign has veered from the economy to security, sparked by the brutal death of 11-year-old Morena Domínguez. On Wednesday, the girl was attacked by two robbers riding a motorcycle just meters away from her school. The attackers snatched her cell phone, and she fell to the pavement, where she was left unconscious. She later died in a hospital. Following the murder, all campaign activities were suspended. Meanwhile, cases of domestic security have also returned to the spotlight. A day after the shocking murder of the 11-year-old, a surgeon was shot twice in the head by robbers trying to steal his car.

The pre-electoral climate has become tense. On Thursday, unemployed private security workers blockaded the train tracks demanding better salaries and passengers angered by the interruption of the service stoned the entrance of one of the main stations in Buenos Aires. That same night, a small group of left-wing activists demonstrated against the electoral process outside the Obelisco de Buenos Aires, one of the Argentine capital’s emblematic landmarks. Riot police forces dispersed the protest and arrested six people, including 47-year-old former FARC guerrilla Facundo Molares, who died from cardiac arrest on the spot. Social movements blame the police for his death and are demanding justice.

Episodes of violence have plagued Buenos Aires and its metropolitan area, where more than a third of the population is concentrated, and this has fueled uncertainty about the electoral outcome. The insecurity issue could benefit Bullrich, who has opted more decisively for a tough stance against crime, or Milei, the main beneficiary of the protest vote against the political class. Rodriguez Larreta hopes to be the night’s surprise victor and to prevail over the former secretary of security. The Peronists are nervously awaiting the verdict of the polls: the protest vote could be even greater than expected or it could revive the hope of an electoral victory in October.

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