Mauricio Macri is trying to present himself as a candidate like any other, as if he was not in fact the incumbent president. This was his attitude in Sunday’s televised debate, required by law in Argentina, in which he took part together with the other five candidates who will compete in the Argentinian presidential elections on Oct. 27. Two of the six men in the running got a combined total of more than 80% of the valid votes cast in the primary elections on Aug. 11.
In the primaries, the Alberto Fernández-Cristina Fernández de Kirchner ticket (the candidates of Frente de Todos) managed to take 49.49% of the votes, beating the Macri-Pichetto ticket (the candidates of Juntos por el Cambio) which got only 32.93%.
The Fernández-Kirchner ticket’s nearly 17-point lead was a clue that this debate would not have much influence on the likely outcome of the elections. Each candidate had just 13 minutes to speak, divided into short periods during the two-hour broadcast, while not being allowed to use notes or to interact with the other candidates.
Although the focus was almost entirely on Macri and Fernández, the debate also included Roberto Lavagna, the candidate for Consenso Federal (and Néstor Kirchner’s former economy minister), who got 8.44% in the primaries, Nicolás del Caño, the candidate of the Frente de Izquierda, a Trotskyist party that got 2.93%, and the extreme right-wingers and military dictatorship deniers Juan José Gómez Centurión from the Frente Nos and José Luis Espert from the Frente Despertar, who got 2.71% and 2.23% respectively.
On Sept. 19, the incumbent president gave a strong hint that in his attempt to recover from the defeat suffered in the primaries, he was going to devote himself more to the campaign than to the performance of the duties of his office: “We’ll do 30 rallies in 30 cities. We’ll call them ‘the march of #SíSePuede’.”
Since then, Macri has embarked on a marathon campaign tour, likening himself to San Martin, the Argentinian liberator hero of South America who marched across the Andes to fight the Spanish royalists. On Sept. 28, Macri kicked off his campaign in Buenos Aires, then held a rally on Sept. 30 in his province, on Oct. 1 in Cordoba, on Oct. 2 in Santa Fe, on Oct. 3 in Entre Ríos, on Oct. 4 again in the province of Buenos Aires, on Oct. 5 in Mendoza, on Oct. 7 in Tucumán and on Oct. 10 in Salta.
As the economic numbers stubbornly fail to add up, Macri has preferred to speak in terms of something like a crusade of republicanism against populism. But while the president has been on the campaign trail, according to the Central Bank, Argentina’s dollar reserves have dropped by 37% since the primaries. This drop has pushed the peso’s devaluation to new depths, now worth 59 times less than the US dollar.
Moreover, the suspension of the sixth tranche expected from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has dashed the government’s hopes to increase reserves in order to improve the situation during the pre-election weeks. The restrictions on foreign currencies in an economy where food prices are tied to the US dollar are worsening the inflationary process: according to a study conducted by 45 research centers and local and foreign financial entities on behalf of the Central Bank, total inflation for 2019 will be at 54.9%, while the GDP will have seen a yearly drop of 2.9%.
During the debate, Macri had to try to dodge the economic numbers altogether, and preferred speaking in campaign slogans. “The bluster is back, Kirchnerism hasn’t changed,” was his conclusion. Fernández had a very different approach, quoting numbers with relish and repeatedly accusing Macri of being clueless: “I don’t know what country Macri lives in.”
“One area where the Macri government has completely failed is the economy,” Fernández said. “By the time he ends his mandate, there will be five million more people living in poverty. When he came to government, the deficit-to-GDP ratio was 38%, and now it is 100%. Of the $39 billion Argentina took on as debt, $30 billion bled out, absconded by Mr. President’s friends.”
He ended with a tirade against the powers that be: “They again put us in debt, they again left people without work, they again pushed the middle class into poverty. It’s what they do every time they come to power, and afterwards they make us believe that every 10 years the Argentines are crashing against the same rock. They are the rock.”
This image was first used by the Frente de Todos candidate a few days before, at a campaign event attended by hundreds of teenagers at a local high school, which also featured the presence of former Uruguayan president “Pepe” Mujica. Even though at the end of the TV debate Fernández said that the debate’s “only purpose is to make the media talk about it the next day,” when in front of the cameras, he nonetheless capitalized even more on the government’s weak performance in office, buoyed by the excellent results from the primary elections.
On his part, Macri had to sit and take hit after hit. Once again, he doubled down on his own style of doing politics, like he had done a few days before, when he ostentatiously imitated Jesus by kissing the feet of a woman in Tucumán.
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