Argentina Presidential Campaign: Harbinger of Deep Change?

By Federico Merke*

Candidates, left to right: Daniel Scioli, Mauricio Macri, and Sergio Massa. Photo Credits: Cgazzo, Inés Tanoira, and Tigre Municipio, respectively / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Candidates, left to right: Daniel Scioli, Mauricio Macri, and Sergio Massa. Photo Credits: Cgazzo, Inés Tanoira, and Tigre Municipio, respectively / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

As the 2015 presidential race begins to take shape in Argentina, the leading candidates – Daniel Scioli (Frente para la Victoria, FPV), Mauricio Macri (Propuesta Republicana, PRO), and Sergio Massa (dissident Peronist faction Frente Renovador, FR ) – have already begun to outline their visions, but sweeping change doesn’t yet appear on the horizon.  According to early polls, Massa had a strong start in the runup to the August 5 presidential primary, but his popularity has faded, making Scioli and Macri appear to be the real contenders.  Originally considered an unexciting three-way race, it has now become a polarized contest.  It should come as no surprise if campaign speeches start to follow a continuity-versus-change line.

Several developments suggest the presidential race will be close:

  • The fact that Scioli has named Carlos Zannini, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s legal secretary, as his running mate has been a game-changer. The Scioli-Zannini effort to bridge two different factions of the FPV, namely the left-wing Kirchnerites with more business-friendly Peronists, will demand tons of rhetoric.  This ticket casts them as guarantors of continuity: el modelo with some modifications.  Yet in electoral politics, almost everything is about framing – explaining to core and potential supporters how new decisions, which for all their twists and turns, remain faithful to the flags of the party.  This is when Peronism gets real.
  • The Zannini gambit on the Peronist side prompted Macri to follow a pure PRO formula, naming Gabriela Michetti, a former deputy-major of Buenos Aires City, as his vice-presidential candidate. This ticket bets on the idea that most Argentine voters reject the government and want substantial change, while polls suggest that many just opt for moderate adjustments.  Macri’s record indicates that he would propel a more pro-business government than that of Fernández de Kirchner, but his victory would not portend a return to the neoliberal heyday of the Menem years during the 1990s.
  • Sergio Massa, on the other hand, is the plain-speaking candidate of the dissident Peronist faction who’s challenged by the FPV and PRO candidates to duke it out over the issues. Polls indicate that he will draw 15 percent of the votes in the election – making him an important powerbroker.

These early stages of the campaign reflect a recurrent pattern in Argentina’s political landscape: a tendency of ruling party candidates to move away from incumbents with lofty rhetoric but little specificity on the one hand, as opposition candidates issue harsh criticism while at the same time manifesting a reluctance to embrace radical change.  Scioli seems to be going all-out Kirchnerite, but it’s too soon to judge whether the electorate will follow, or whether once in office he would govern as if it were Cristina’s third term.  He and Macri both aspire to grab Massa’s 15 percent, as it could enable them to win the presidency in the first ballot rather than having to contest a second round of voting between the two top vote-getters.  But he hasn’t stated a credible price, and neither Scioli nor Macri seems ready yet to begin bargaining with him.   President Fernández may have avoided plunging the economy into crisis before she steps down, but her successor will definitely have to make tough choices because the country is mired in recession and cannot access foreign investment.  Macri might initially enjoy some leeway to introduce austerity measures that would clean up a good part of the macro-economic mess and reopen Argentina to international capital markets, but even he – like Scioli – is likely to be constrained by embedded Kirchnerism in Congress and in the ministries.  Those in Argentina and beyond who have dreamed that Kirchnerism’s days are numbered will have to wait to see.  Kirchnerism, Argentina’s latest “ism,” has profoundly altered the political and ideological landscape – and, at this early point in the campaign, it appears likely to continue to be part of the country’s political ethos into the future.  It could even turn out to be the dominant force in the administration that takes office in 2016.

July 2, 2015

*Federico Merke directs the Political Science and International Relations Programs at the Universidad de San Andrés in Buenos Aires.

Honduras: Simmering Crisis

Porfirio Lobo and Hillary Clinton
US Embassy Guatemala
/ Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Little good and lots of bad has transpired in Honduras since the night in June 2009 that an Army-backed coup d’état, orchestrated by the economic elites, ousted President Mel Zelaya and installed Roberto Micheletti as the de facto ruler.  Almost four years later, Honduras remains one of the places in the Americas where democracy is at permanent risk – where drug trafficking, corruption, impunity, private armies and feudal caudillos thrive in a climate of spiraling violence.  Honduras today is the most violent country in the Americas and last year was among the top three in the numbers of assassinated journalists.  Honduras also remains one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.

President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo lacked credibility from the moment he donned the presidential sash in January 2010 – the candidate who, by almost all accounts, would have lost the election had not the coup reversed that fate, clamped down on opposition media, and suspended many civil rights.  While Washington worked hard to gain OAS recognition of his government, Lobo offered no guarantees – to either Hondurans or foreigners – that he would reverse the ongoing activities of the Army and rapacious economic elites to undermine democratic institutions.

  • Timid attempts to show independence, such as a projected police reform, languished due to lack of political will and financial support.
  • Honduras’s doors opened ever wider to organized crime and corruption.  According to U.S. agencies, roughly 60 percent of the cocaine passing through Central America on its way to U.S. markets in 2011 went through Honduras.  (The Obama Administration funded a militarized drug interdiction program that sputtered after Honduran civilians were killed.)
  • Politically motivated murders by sicarios – reminiscent of 1980s death squads – skyrocketed.  Investigations were few, and prosecutions were nonexistent.
  • By the end of last year, Lobo was pointing fingers at his old allies in the Army, the elites, and even his own party, accusing them of trying to destabilize his government. He failed to pass constitutional reforms that he claimed would protect democracy.  General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the military commander during the coup, announced that he was running for president.
  • Honduras is facing one of the worst fiscal crises of its history – a significant landmark for the perennially mismanaged country.

In Washington none of this seems to raise red flags.  On the contrary, the ideological bent of statements from both the executive and legislative branches suggests satisfaction with the state of affairs in Honduras – and willingness to keep the crisis there unsolved.  Hillary Clinton´s State Department was, to say the least, shy when addressing the deteriorating situation of the Central American country.  In January, at Senator John Kerry’s confirmation hearing, Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s assertion that what happened in Honduras in 2009 wasn’t a coup went unchallenged – despite the overwhelming consensus otherwise throughout our hemisphere.  The first sign offered by Kerry as Secretary of State, however, gives room to expect at least a modest change in the narrative: on March 4th, the State Department gave one of eight International Women of Courage Awards to Julieta Castellanos, a respected human rights advocate and critic of corruption and impunity in Honduras.  This hint of a less ideological and a more strategic and humanistic approach to the unsolved Honduran question is welcome.