Macri Malaise: The Economy Will Drive Argentina's Election
Inflation and recession are doing little to bridge the South American nation's deep political divide.
BUENOS AIRES — What does the future hold for a society where more than two-thirds of voters are "against" rather than "for" any particular side?
That's the question facing Argentina right now, where people not only have serious concerns about President Mauricio Macri and his Cambiemos ("Let's Change") coalition, but are also wary of the opposition Peronists and their standard bearer, ex-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015), who preceded Macri and may try to succeed him.
Whoever leads Argentina after this year's general elections, on Oct. 27, will in any case take over a country that is weakened socially, economically and institutionally. And yet few politicians seem concerned with the post-electoral scenario for now. Indeed, suggestions by one former finance minister, Roberto Lavagna, on forming a broad front to confront national problems were quickly dismissed, even among his former allies the Peronists, also known as the Justicialist Party, Argentina's historic social-democratic movement.
The Macri government itself is stagnant.
Argentinians, in other words, remain deeply polarized. Polls also suggest that nearly 25% of voters would back third-party candidates like Lavagna (a Peronist until 2006), Sergio Massa (another former Peronist who formed the Renovating Front in 2013), and Salta governor Juan Manuel Urtubey. But those are the combined numbers for the three possible contenders. Individually, their poll numbers are far smaller.
The Macri government itself is stagnant. Critics accuse it of lacking imagination and management skills in a slowed economy. It has been keen so far to extract political capital from Mrs. Kirchner's legal troubles relating to suspected corruption in her presidency, though these will not solve the bigger problem of the economy.
The administration is faring poorly, in other words, as recession takes its toll on the voting public. This is causing unrest inside Cambiemos and tensions with Macri's centrist coalition partners, the Radicals. They say revelations on corruption under the Kirchner presidency are no longer yielding the political returns they were meant to have. This is in part because the government has left the affair entirely in the hands of a judiciary in the grip of intrigues and infiltrations. Mrs Kirchner's supporters have in turn proved deft at spreading the idea that corruption is pervasive, not limited to Peronists or the Kirchner administrations.
Recent polls have reflected the increasingly irrelevance of corruption as a voter concern. Consultants Isonomía and Aresco found that the biggest concern among respondents is inflation, followed by rising utility costs and crime. Fear of unemployment comes next, and only then do people cite corruption.
The economy remains crucial for now.
This may prove alarming to Cambiemos in terms of electoral prospects, and a boon for the Peronists, who have traditionally touted themselves as the party of the poor. For them, worsening economic conditions always trump concerns over institutional integrity and public ethics. For some time now no prominent Peronist has made declarations on corruption under the last two presidents, Néstor (2003-2007) and Cristina Kirchner. That could change when Mrs Kirchner appears in court in May for money-laundering charges relating to her presidency.
The economy remains crucial for now. It has fed tensions in the presidential coalition as Radicals urge a review of utility price rises and for subsidies for small and medium businesses. Another problem is that Macri has decided on adjustment policies without duly consulting with the Radicals. It is as if Macri both does and doesn't understand the meaning or purpose of a coalition, and tensions are particularly felt at electoral times. This is illustrated in the bungled coordination of the alliance's candidates for elections set for May in the province of Córdoba, which may prove a key indicator of Macri's chances in October.
To try to remedy the economic situation, the government has issued sharp rate hikes to bolster the peso against the dollar. But that's just sent the country's productive sector into intensive care. Internal concerns and international volatility prompt people to buy U.S. dollars, and every time it jumps in Argentina, it feeds an inflation rate that is increasingly looking uncheckable. The consensus now is that rising prices have become the main cause of the public's bad mood.
And unless inflation comes down, the president's electoral prospects will. For now, the two political poles each have a negative to cling to: for Macri, it is the vile cloud of corruption hovering around Kirchner, and for the Peronists, inflation and a recession caused only partly by austerity policies. But could either of these prove decisive in taking one or another side toward electoral victory later this year?