A country at a crossroads: The 2019 Argentine presidential election

A country at a crossroads: The 2019 Argentine presidential election
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While the first round of Argentina's presidential election is not until Oct. 27, on Aug. 11 the country's peculiar brand of primaries could go a long way toward determining the next president. 

The Aug. 11 results could destroy any realistic hope of a reelection victory by President Mauricio Macri — and send the Argentine economy into a tailspin, in anticipation of former President (from 2007 to 2015) Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s return to power. But, they also could buoy expectations of a Macri victory and foster optimism in the markets regarding Argentina’s future. 

In the spring, Macri and Fernández de Kirchner concluded that on their own they represented overly polarizing options, which approximately one-quarter of Argentines found to be equally distasteful. As a remedy, each adopted a strategy to broaden their appeal.

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Macri’s was textbook, choosing as his vice-presidential nominee one of the leaders of the anti-Fernández de Kirchner wing of the Peronist Movement, Miguel Pichetto, the then leader of the main Peronist delegation in the Argentine Senate.

Fernández de Kirchner's was unique. She handpicked Alberto Fernández as her presidential candidate and herself as his vice-presidential candidate. He served five years as her cabinet chief for and her spouse, Néstor Kirchner (from 2003 to 2007). He lacks much in the way of a political support base of his own and it will be relatively easy for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to remain the power behind the throne in a “Fernández-Fernández” administration if she so wishes.

Macri and the Fernández-Fernández ticket present Argentines with two very distinct political and economic paths to follow beginning on Dec. 10 when the next presidential term begins. They can return to a familiar and comfortable (at least in the short-term) path of populism that offers little hope of stemming the country’s century-long gradual decline by voting for the Fernández-Fernández ticket. Or, they can continue forward down an unknown and uncomfortable path by voting for Macri. Macri’s path could very well eventually lead to the same destination as that of his rivals. However, it also could lead to a destination where a country rich in natural resources and human capital could finally begin to realize its true potential.

Eight other candidates are running for president, but only three are expected to surpass the 1.5 percent vote threshold in the August primaries required to compete in October: centrist Roberto Lavagna, conservative José Luis Espert and Trotskyite Nicolás del Caño. Espert and del Caño will each likely win 2 to 4 percent of the vote and Lavagna 8 to 12 percent. Lavagna and (especially) Espert siphon off significantly more votes from Macri than they do from the Fernández-Fernández ticket.

In Argentina, a candidate can win in the first round by finishing first with more than 45 percent of the vote. In a head-to-head runoff with Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Macri would be favored to win. The principal threat to his reelection lies in the potential for the Fernández-Fernández ticket to finish first with slightly more than 45 percent of the vote on October 27. This means winning in the first round, even if an absolute majority of Argentines would have voted for Macri-Pichetto over Fernández-Fernández in a two-candidate Nov. 24 runoff. 

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The Aug. 11 PASO (Obligatory, Simultaneous, Open Primaries) represent a critical test with all candidates competing on the same day in primaries for which participation by voters is compulsory and in which they are their alliance’s only presidential candidate. The PASO serve as an electoral census in a country where there exists little confidence in opinion polls, revealing the true level of support for each ticket. For the Fernández-Fernández and Macri-Pichetto tickets the primordial goal is to demonstrate to elites and voters that they are well-positioned to achieve a first round victory in October or to force a runoff and be victorious in November. 

If Macri finishes 6 to 9 percent behind a Fernández-Fernández ticket that is near or over 45 percent, this advantage could be seen as all but impossible for Macri to overcome on Oct. 27, and would set off a panic among Argentine and foreign investors in anticipation of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner 's return to power. This panic would adversely affect economic indicators (exchange rate, inflation) followed by voters in the run up to Oct. 27 when Macri's re-election prospects will hinge on undecided voters being optimistic about the economy, not pessimistic. 

Conversely, if Macri is able to finish within 1 to 3 percent of the Fernández-Fernández ticket and hold it to less than 45 percent, such panic will largely be avoided. And, if Macri ends up 1 to 3 percent ahead of the Fernández-Fernández ticket, his prospects for reelection would be very bright.

Macri's reelection would signal a continuation of a general policy trend toward good government, rule of law and free-market policies that would make Argentina a more stable and predictable country and a more attractive destination for investments in agriculture, energy and technology. 

A Fernández-Fernández victory would result in the erosion of the rule of law, an increase in corruption and a return to arbitrary government intervention in the economy and authoritarian moves against the media and corporations. These factors, which characterized the 12 and a half years (2003 to 2015) of the Kirchner/Fernández administrations, would make Argentina a less attractive destination for investment. The only question is how much worse conditions would become. 

Cockeyed optimists claim Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has learned from the errors of her past ways and repented, and further claim that in any event it will be the more moderate and market friendly Alberto Fernández who will hold the reins of power, not her. 

Pragmatic realists posit that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner believes that to avoid an economic crisis she will need to moderate some of her past authoritarian and anti-free market behavior, and that Alberto Fernández, while not holding the reins of power, will play an important role in the day-to-day running of government. 

Cynical pessimists argue Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has not changed at all and will quickly revert to her old ways once in power, and do not believe Alberto Fernández will have any power other than what she delegates to him.

The truth probably lies somewhere between the visions of the realists and pessimists, with the bottom line being an all but certain return to the populist legacy that has time and time again undermined Argentina's efforts to fully realize its potential. 

On Aug.11 Argentines will begin to choose their country's future path. One path will lead them back to a past with only a somber future, the other to a future that could be just as bleak, but could also be as bright as the Sun of May on the Argentine flag. 

Mark P. Jones is the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s fellow in political science and the Joseph D. Jamail chair in Latin American Studies at Rice University as well as a co-author of “Texas Politics Today: 2017-2018 Edition.” Follow him @MarkPJonesTX.