Argentines vote in primary poll dominated by concerns over pandemic recovery

Argentina updates

Argentines on Sunday will get their first chance to vote on the performance of President Alberto Fernández’s centre-left government, at a time of widespread discontent following three-and-a-half years of economic crises.

The primary elections come as Fernández’s popularity has plunged to 34 per cent, down from a peak of 57 per cent in April 2020, shortly after taking office and launching a nationwide lockdown. Since then, the president has been hit by the consequences of the pandemic and a continued run against the peso, which have pushed inflation above 50 per cent.

Poverty levels have also risen. Some 42 per cent of Argentines live in a household whose earnings are below the poverty line established by Argentina’s statistics office, up from 35 per cent when the president took office in late 2019.

Sunday’s primaries will decide who contests legislative elections on November 14 — but more importantly give a good indication of who could be the final winner of those midterms, given Argentina’s particular election system, which makes primary voting mandatory for all citizens.

The ruling centre-left Peronist coalition — led by Fernández and his vice-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — hopes to retain control of the Senate and the key Buenos Aires Province, home to a third of Argentina’s population.

Participation in the elections is mandatory for all citizens. Analysts expect a higher than usual share of absentees, blank and null ballots, as well as an improved performance from candidates to the right of the usual mainstream alternatives, due to growing political discontent in the country.

“The collective mood is one of anger, depression and bitterness. Many voters have no interest in the election and many have been unwilling to answer our questions,” said pollster Ricardo Rouvier.

Voters have consistently highlighted the economy as their main concern in the build-up to the elections. It is an issue where both coalitions disappointed over the past few years.

Fernández defeated former centre-right president Mauricio Macri in 2019 after two years of debt and currency crises. But his own term has been blighted by the pandemic. Argentina’s post-lockdown recovery has been among the weakest in the region, according to data from the Institute of International Finance.

The president secured a $65bn restructuring deal with private bondholders last year, but postponed talks to renegotiate a $44bn IMF loan until after the election, fearing that the terms of that deal could prove unpopular.

While the ruling coalition will run with a single, unified ticket in most key districts for the primary, the opposition is braced for battles that could decide its future leadership.

Buenos Aires city mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta hopes the result will secure his spot as a rival to Fernández in the next presidential election in 2023. Wins by Larreta’s allies María Eugenia Vidal and Diego Santilli in Buenos Aires City and Buenos Aires Province respectively would make him favourite to lead the opposition ticket.

The mayor wants to be the new face of the centre-right — one that is more willing to negotiate with the Peronists. He has stayed at arm’s length from Macri throughout the campaign.

His candidates will face internal challenges from the right, including pro-market former economy minister Ricardo López Murphy, as well as the traditional but waning party of Argentina’s middle class, the Radicals.

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