On Sunday, Argentina will hold highly significant midterm legislative elections in its 23 provinces as well as the federal capital of Buenos Aires. Cambiemos (Let’s Change), headed by the centre-right incumbent President Mauricio Macri, will look to expand its political mandate as the first non-Peronist government in 16 years.
While seats will be up for grabs throughout the country, observers have placed most of their focus on the Senate race in Buenos Aires province, a predominantly working class region of Argentina that holds nearly 40 percent of the national electorate. Here, Macri’s current Minister of Education, Esteban Bullrich, is competing against former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who assumed office in 2007 as part of the Peronist ‘Front for Victory’ faction. Lingering popularity for the former head of state and her newly forged centre-left Unidad Ciudidana (Citizen’s Unity Party) has contributed to a fiercely polarized campaign in a province that has recently slipped from Peronist hands for the first time in decades.
In a somewhat theatrical display, Fernandez de Kirchner announced her candidacy for the senate back in June in front of 30,000 spectators at a Buenos Aires football arena. Her campaign message, directly taking aim at Macri’s ‘neoliberal’ economic agenda, triggered a wave a concern from international investors who overwhelmingly favor Macri’s business-friendly reform plan. To add to the theatrics, Kirchner’s return to politics coincides with a slew of controversial corruption allegations against the former president that span throughout her presidency. She is currently under indictment for embezzling public works funds and facing a potential investigation related to the death of the prosecutor, Alberto Nisman. Many of Kirchner’s detractors argue that here bid is more than coincidental, arguing that she is seeking to take advantage of a constitutional provision that protects sitting members of Congress from arrest. Despite a somewhat lackluster result for Kirchner in the August PASO primary, her campaign has been a direct partisan confrontation to Macri’s governing coalition.
Despite Kirchner’s resilience among important sectors of the provincial electorate, recent polling data forecasts a slim but decisive win for Bullrich and Cambiemos on Sunday. Opolit Communis, a Buenos Aires based consultancy group, predicts that 38.9% of voters polled intend to vote for Bullrich compared to 35.5% for Fernandez de Kirchner. This new result indicates a slight uptick in support for Bullrich from the recent PASO primary held in August, which had both candidates virtually tied at about 34%. Moreover, almost a quarter of those polled (24.9%) stated that Cambiemos was the best option to “prevent Cristina Kirchner from winning.”
The race in Buenos Aires serves as a political weathervane for Argentina’s future. Cambiemos, in its barrage of media appeals, has framed its message at the polls as one of ‘prosperity for the future’ versus the corruption of previous (Peronist) administrations. This message undoubtedly plays into the public’s general skepticism of another electoral bid by Fernandez de Kirchner, who has become the country’s single most divisive politician. President Macri, on the other hand, has experienced a 10-point increase in his public approval rating since July. For Macri, such a win would solidify this public support and embolden his governing agenda comprising of highly orthodox economic reforms. For his Cambiemos coalition, the potential pay off is a bit more obscure. While a victory would not guarantee a solid majority in the legislature, Cambiemos would make important strides in stealing ground from Peronist forces in the opposition, which remain severely split.
Essentially, while forecasts suggest a victory for Cambiemos this Sunday, the race will come down to the will of undecided voters. Cristina Kirchner, who must mobilize her urban Peronist base, has the more difficult task according to the polling. While Cambiemos may not be the ideal choice for Buenos Aires voters, it is certainly (albeit marginally) the preferred choice.