December 13, 2013
Losing control of Congress is the real risk for CFK now
Surely by now you know the score. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s Victory Front (FpV) coalition took a beating in Sunday’s primaries (also known by the Spanish acronym, PASO). The FpV was even thumped in Buenos Aires province, the nation’s largest voting district that was supposedly a Kirchnerite bastion. In Buenos Aires province, the FpV lost to Tigre Mayor Sergio Massa, a former Cabinet chief to CFK who now leads the dissident Renewal Front.
Massa canvassed during the short campaign promising to take Argentina down the “wide avenue” of centrist policies. But he also criticized much of what the opposition sees wrong with the Kirchnerite administration: crime, inflation, an attempt to reform the Supreme Court, currency exchange controls and wage income tax.
Crime according to polls is a main concern. But rarely had it turned into a campaign issue when the time came to vote. It appears to have been a different story this time. Massa has embraced closed-circuit television, CCTV, as the right tool to fight crime. Argentina has a history of punishing ruling parties in midterm elections — what is locally referred to as, literally translated, “a vote of punishment.” In a nutshell, Sunday’s vote was about crime and punishment.
The FpV lost in big provinces like Córdoba and Santa Fe. It also, predictably, went down in Buenos Aires City where the Peronist party has rarely performed well. But Massa’s win was especially painful for the Kirchnerites. Massa won 35 percent of the vote against the 29.6 percent garnered by the FpV candidate, Martín Insaurralde.
Massa hammered the Victory Front in northern Greater Buenos Aires, an affluent swath of suburbs that includes Tigre. The FpV won in many working class places in Greater Buenos Aires, including the sprawling district La Matanza. But Massa’s win in the north was much bigger than Insaurralde’s win in the south. Massa also won in some Greater Buenos Aires districts that are supposed to be Kirchnerite bastions: Avellaneda, José C. Paz, Lanús and Morón.
Those names don’t mean anything to you? Well consider that Morón is the home base of Martín Sabbatella, the head of the AFSCA media watchdog. José C. Paz is notorious because its former mayor, Mario Ishii, swore loyalty to Néstor Kirchner, the president’s late husband and predecessor, after he lost the midterm elections in Buenos Aires province in 2009.
Ishii was in shock on Monday. He congratulated Massa and declared the Victory Front had lost because “people are angry” at the president (meaning that he is not prepared to take the blame for defeat this time).
Many observers expected the FpV to perform better nationwide than it did in 2009. But, if anything, the results look worse for the president’s coalition. Technically the Victory Front and allies (including the massive win in Santiago del Estero by the pro-Kirchnerite governor) won 30.9 percent of the vote nationwide. In 2009 the victory front collected 30.1 percent of the vote. Yet that is only a technicality. The defeat looks bad.
Fernández de Kirchner on election night said that in October, when the real midterm elections will be held, the result will still allow the Victory Front to stay in control of both houses of Congress. This is also only technically true. And only just. The FpV can’t afford to lose any votes in October because it is looking at only the slimmest of majorities in both the Lower House and the Senate.
What made the election result look really bad were a couple of losses in the northern provinces where the FpV was supposed to be unbeatable. The Radical Party won in La Rioja province and the Victory Front struggled in San Juan and Jujuy. It makes the ruling party look vulnerable.
The FpV also lost in Kirchner’s native Patagonian province, Santa Cruz (a Radical also won the day there). The only piece of good news coming from Santa Cruz for the president was that her faction defeated Peronist Governor Daniel Peralta who is now at odds with the national government.
An opposition oil industry union leader won the primaries in Neuquén province where the national government has signed a deal with US energy company Chevron to jointly exploit the Vaca Muerta shale field.
Fernández de Kirchner tried to put on a brave face on election night and claimed that the FpV was still the most voted-for party nationwide. In a word: she did not concede defeat. But what was there to celebrate?
The FpV can take solace in the mediocre performance of other ruling parties in Córdoba and even in Buenos Aires City where the centre-right party PRO technically collected less votes than the centrist coalition UNEN.
UNEN, a coalition that includes the lawmaker Elisa Carrió, played by the PASO rules and fielded three separate list of contenders in the primaries. Fernando Solanas won UNEN’s senatorial primaries in Buenos Aires City. Carrió won the Lower House contest followed by former economy minister Martín Lousteau who clinched second place and a slot on the ticket.
The UNEN contest was lost by the faction that carried the former head of the Central Bank Alfonso Prat Gay as a senatorial candidate and Ricardo Gil Lavedra, a Radical, as the head of the list to the Lower House. Yet what matters is that accepting the primaries as a real contest turned out to be a vote-getting strategy for UNEN.
Macri’s camp celebrated on Sunday night. But what were they celebrating exactly? UNEN was the most voted for coalition in Buenos Aires City, not PRO.
Still Gabriela Michetti, PRO’s senatorial candidate, has a good chance of beating Solanas in October. PRO argues that the votes garnered by the three UNEN factions in the primary can’t be counted as one.
Yet Sergio Bergman, PRO’s top candidate to the Lower House, faces an uphill battle against Carrió, a former presidential candidate who performed dismally when Fernández de Kirchner was re-elected with 54 percent of the vote in 2011.
Carrió, who is fiercely critical of the Kirchnerite administration and captivates viewers every time she appears on television, has risen from the ashes.
It says a lot about the mood the vast majority of the nation’s voters are now in that Carrió has done so well. What seems to be the problem? Massa made a point of complaining about the wage income tax threshold that has not been updated by the national government to keep up with an annual inflation rate of at least 20 percent. Salaries have kept up with inflation roughly through collective wage bargaining. But at least 35 percent of the work force is paid under the counter. Who did the illegal labourers vote for on Sunday?
The challenge for the Kirchnerites is not to lose any votes in October. The president’s grip on Congress is effectively at stake because the Victory Front could face defections if Peronist lawmakers sense that Fernández de Kirchner is close to losing control of the situation.
The FpV is still alive if you look at the results. It won amply in Entre Ríos and Chaco. This means that Entre Ríos Governor Sergio Urribarri and Chaco Governor Jorge Capitanich are potential presidential candidates in 2015. Buenos Aires province Governor Daniel Scioli, who according to polls is still a popular politician, campaigned in Insaurralde’s favour.
Scioli seems set to run in Victory Front primaries when the time comes to vote again in 2015. He will continue to use his popularity in Insaurralde’s favour. But, as this newspaper said on its front page headline after the votes were counted, it appears that Fernández de Kirchner has now entered the lame duck era. It will be a real surprise if the Victory Front manages to turn this election around in October. All Massa has to do is sit tight. The centre-right Peronist Hilda Duhalde did Massa no favours when she declared that the result showed that women are not necessarily fit to be politicians and that possibly CFK is not right in the head.
Fernández de Kirchner’s coalition has been here before: in 2009. After he lost in Buenos Aires province (to the centre-right Peronist Francisco De Narváez) Kirchner announced that he was quitting as chief of the Peronist party (also known by its acronym is Spanish: PJ). Kirchner’s resignation formally left Scioli as PJ chairman. When the situation improved for the Victory Front Kirchner once again took over as party leader. But when Kirchner died suddenly of a heart attack in 2010, Scioli was again formally left in charge of the Peronist party.
Fernández de Kirchner, at least until Sunday, has been the real chief of both the Victory Front coalition and the Peronist party. But suddenly the future of the Peronist party is wide open and it matters because the likes of Scioli, Urribarri and Capitanich could face each other in presidential primaries that will not include CFK as a candidate.
Massa has effectively left the Victory Front. But will the PJ stick with Scioli? Will Massa agree to face other contenders in a Peronist primary? Massa’s camp on Friday ruled out the possibility of backing Scioli’s presidential candidacy in 2015. Massa has no plans to run for Buenos Aires province governor in 2015 if Scioli runs for president, the Renewal Front Lower House candidate Felipe Solá said on Friday. Massa has said that this is not the time to talk about 2015. But then he would say that.
The president meanwhile is not waving the white flag. Fernández de Kirchner threw a fit on Wednesday during her first public appearance after Sunday’s elections.
The president delivered a speech at the Tecnópolis science fair attended by most Kirchnerite governors and candidates. She complained bitterly that the opposition press had maliciously twisted her words. She celebrated the ruling party’s “victories” in Antarctica and a voting station in Formosa province based inside the Qom indigenous community. The president also declared that she is willing to open talks with unionists, bankers and business leaders, but not with the “substitute” opposition politicians running for Congress. Then CFK fired off a volley of fierce tweets vowing to campaign harder in the face of defeat.
The short campaign was dominated by crime, inflation and the income wage tax. The centrists, it appears, have taken over the asylum. The firebrand president has reacted defiantly. That’s the way Kirchnerism has chosen to behave when it loses. But right now Fernández de Kirchner, at least for a minute, looks lost.