Even by Argentine standards, this year’s legislative mid-term campaign was a turbulent one. The election saw incumbent president Mauricio Macri’s position strengthened as his coalition, Cambiemos (“Let’s change”), scored a landslide victory. Cambiemos received 40.7% of the votes for deputies nationwide while Unidad Ciudadana (Citizen Unity), the party of Macri’s rival, former president Cristina Kirchner, came a distant second with just 21.8%.
The result has clearly pleased foreign investors, with the Merval, Buenos Aires’ stock index, and the Argentine peso rising rapidly in the wake of the results. Kirchner’s policy of high social spending, though gaining her the fanatical loyalty of her core vote, left the country close to bankruptcy by 2015.
The results of this year’s elections will be taken as a sign of her growing weakness heading towards presidential elections in two years time. That said, as well as the traditional left/right polarisation, this election was heavily influenced by a mysterious death that flattered neither party.
The Maldonado case
On 1 August, a protest organised by indigenous Mapuche activists in the southern Argentine province of Chubut against the perceived suppression of their rights was forcibly dispersed by a police unit under the control of the country’s federal government.
Santiago Maldonado, a 28-year-old activist and campaigner from the province of Buenos Aires who had joined the protest, went missing for 74 days until his body was found floating in a river last week – just three days before the elections.
Maldonado’s disappearance sparked large-scale misinformation campaigns as well as many conspiracy theories. The first judge appointed to the case was removed as he had a record of anti-mapuche declarations; a congresswoman then declared that Maldonado had been sighted in Chile; meanwhile a couple took to national television to swear that they had given the young man a ride a few days after the protest. One commentator even suggested that Maldonado had been killed by the Mapuche to gain sympathy.
The initial reaction of Minister for Justice, Patricia Bullrich, was to dismiss any police involvement in the incident. However, this was difficult to prove, as ten days were allowed to elapse before forensic work could be done on the police cars involved in controlling the protests, permitting ample time to wash them and clear away any potential evidence. Thus far we know little of what exactly happened to Santiago Maldonado.
Public perception of the case
Both sides sought to exploit the case for electoral gain. It was so widely covered that by election day only 0.5% of those polled had no knowledge of it. The opposition linked Macri’s administration with the disappearance, while supporters of Macri merely saw the accusations against the authorities as electoral propaganda.
In the end, Macri evidently won the public opinion battle. Neither the president nor the minister for justice’s image was significantly tarnished by the Maldonado case. Moreover, 49.5% of respondents in a poll considered it a conspiracy orchestrated by the opposition, led by Kirchner. The majority of independent voters tend to see the Mapuche indigenous movement as violent and only 6% of them said the case had inspired them to switch their votes to the opposition, while 16% considered changing their preference to favour the government.
Among decided voters however, the case only reinforced long-held opinions. 73% of Macri voters thought that Kirchner was taking advantage of the disappearance to conspire against the incumbent government and its reform. On the other hand, 87% of Kirchner voters consider the police and the government, if not Macri himself, responsible for Maldonado’s death, and compared Maldonado’s fate with the deseparecidos from the last dictatorship (1976-1983).
The impact of the results
What conclusions can be drawn from these results when looking forward to the presidential election in 2019? The first thing to note is that Cambiemos is broadening its territorial base, winning 12 provinces, including the most populous Buenos Aires, Santa Fe, Cordoba and Mendoza, leaving Cristina’s opposition to claim just three small provinces.
Secondly, on current trends, Macri is only 4.3% from the 45% threshold to win an election in the first round. This is important as it would not allow a broad Peronist coalition to unite against him in the second round. Currently the sum of the three Peronist options nationwide is 42.5%, surpassing Macri’s performance.
However, centre-right leaders within the Peronist party, such as Sergio Massa and Juan Manuel Urtubey, would not endorse the leftist agenda of Cristina Kirchner. Urtubey is a young politician with a good relationship with the media and business community, but he struggled to compete against Macri’s candidates even in his stronghold – the northern province of Salta.
Besides, his position on religious teaching in public schools seem hard to reconcile with the young, urban left-wing voter base of Kirchnerism. A unified Peronist party coalition by 2019 seems highly unlikely, which would appear to leave an open road to Macri’s victory.
The march to reelection
As a result, Macri now controls 107 out of 257 congressional seats. He will still have to negotiate to pass important reforms with moderate Peronists such as Urtubey and Massa, but he now has more leverage. However, moderate Peronists still hold an important part of the Senate.
Macri gave a press conference the day after the election praising his free-trade and pro-business reforms and asking provincial governors and moderate Peronists to unite behind him for the sake of national interests.