Election preview: Argentina midterms

Bulgaria, which we looked at yesterday, isn’t the only place voting on Sunday. Argentina also goes to the polls for midterm congressional elections, electing half of the lower house (the Chamber of Deputies) and a third of the Senate.

In the last election, held two years ago, Alberto Fernández, of the Frente de Todos (“Everyone’s Front”), won the presidency with 48.2% of the vote, defeating centre-right incumbent Mauricio Macri, who had 40.3%. Fernández represents the left wing of the Peronist movement, and particularly the tradition of the Kirchners, husband and wife, who between them held the presidency from 2003 to 2015.

Fernández also won a strong position in the legislature, although he was short of a majority in the lower house. After the partial elections of 2019, Frente de Todos had 120 of the 257 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, four ahead of the centre-right with 116. A variety of minor parties, mostly regionalist, collected the remaining 21.

That strong position is unlikely to survive. Argentina has not had a good couple of years; its per capita death toll from Covid-19 has been one of the world’s worst, behind only Peru and Brazil among South American countries, and the government’s response has been seen as shambolic. And as one might have expected from the Kirchners’ record, the government’s economic policy has produced runaway inflation, with the Argentine peso now trading officially at 100 to the US dollar and unofficially at 200.

Fernández also has some positive achievements to his credit: his government has legalised abortion and marijuana, and has stood up for democracy in the region against the authoritarian trend in neighboring Brazil. But midterms are a good opportunity for voters to make a protest against the government without risking fundamental change, and all the signs are that that’s exactly what they’ll do.

Argentina holds nationwide primaries for all parties, known as PASO (standing for Open, Simultaneous and Mandatory Primaries, in Spanish), so the numbers voting in them give a fair indication of overall support. Based on the aggregates at the Spanish Wikipedia, the PASO held two months ago drew 41.5% to support the centre-right against only 32.4% for Frente de Todos. Right-wing liberal tickets had another 6.4%, the anti-Kirchner Peronists 5.5% and the far left 5.1%.

More people, of course, will show up for the actual election (particularly since voting is compulsory, at least in theory), but the turnout of 66.2% for the primaries is pretty good, and the polls suggest that the same pattern is likely to hold on Sunday. If it does, the government’s position in Congress is likely to deteriorate significantly.

How big a problem that will be for Fernández is not clear. The left has done well in South America recently, with wins in Bolivia and Peru plus strong polling ahead of next week’s election in Chile (and next year’s in Brazil). A modest midterm setback wouldn’t really be enough to cast doubt on that trend, but if it makes Argentina more difficult to govern then it may hurt the president’s chances for re-election in 2023.

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