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Crisis-stricken Argentina to choose new president

Nicole Frölich
October 26, 2019

Argentina has a choice to make. Will voters cast their ballot for an unsuccessful president or for his rival, who forms a team with controversial ex-leader Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner?

The Casa Rosada illuminated in pink
Image: picture-alliance/imageBROKER/K. Kozlowski

"I have never seen my country suffer like this," says Manuel.

Manuel, 27, is a cab driver in Argentina. Since the economic crisis erupted in the country he has been very worried about his livelihood: "Everything is in short supply. We work and work and still don't have enough to live on."

Argentina is in a bad way. The inflation rate is 53.5% and a third of Argentinians live below the poverty line. In September, the Congress of what was once the wealthiest country in Latin America found itself constrained to declare a food emergency. By the end of 2019, 4.5 million people in the country will be officially considered as destitute.

Many Argentinians are sure that they have President Mauricio Macri to blame for the disaster. When he came to power in 2015, he promised citizens a country without poverty — and instead with new, stable jobs and an inflation rate under 10%.

But four years later, he is faced with a complete shambles.

Mauricio Macri
Macri has failed to fulfil his election pledges in catastrophic fashionImage: Reuters/M. Brindicci

Tragic failure

Macri's plan to liberalize Argentinian financial policy after years of protectionism has gone awry in tragic fashion. Instead of attracting foreign investors and stimulating the shaky economy with more relaxed conditions of competition, he made the country a playground for currency speculators. In the end, he sought assistance from the International Monetary Fund.

In June 2018, the IMF granted Argentina the highest loan in the institution's history: $50 billion (€45 billion). After a short time, this was supplemented by an additional $6.3 billion. Argentina introduced drastic austerity measures that brought disaster to the middle class — and, very probably, will now be catastrophic for the president.

Macri insists his government has achieved a lot: Important improvements to the country's infrastructure have been initiated, international relations strengthened and Argentina's self-sufficiency promoted.

But all of this sounds rather minor to someone who, like Manuel, drives a taxi for 14 hours a day and still can't pay his electricity bill at the end of the month. And there are many like him who all feel that they have been left to fend for themselves by their president, a man whom they accuse of not understanding the problems of the crumbling middle class and of creating policies that benefit only the rich.

Fernandez and Fernandez

Opposition candidate Alberto Fernandez is promising to remedy the situation. This lawyer and law professor knows Argentinian politics well. He was the head of the Cabinet under President Nestor Kirchner and later under Kirchner's wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. But in 2008, after they had worked together for a short time, Fernandez and Fernandez went their own ways. Subsequently, Alberto Fernandez became a harsh critic of populist Kirchnerism.

Eleven years later, the differences seem to have been resolved — at least, on the surface. In the spring of 2019, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the controversial ex-president, announced that she would not challenge Macri herself and had chosen Alberto Fernandez as the presidential candidate of the "Frente de Todos" ("Front for Everyone") coalition. She is running alongside him for the post of vice president.

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Alberto Fernandez in 2008
Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Alberto Fernandez have had one falling-out alreadyImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/N. Pisarenko

This is a clever move, though an unusual one. Alberto Fernandez is more moderate than his former boss. He dissociates himself from the traditional form of Latin American left-wing populism and acts like a pragmatic Peronist. This makes him an easier choice for many Argentinian voters than the ex-president, who not only has a polarizing effect but is also under multiple suspicions of corruption.

In primary elections in August, 48% of voters expressed their confidence in the Fernandez-Fernandez team. Mauricio Macri and his vice-presidential candidate Miguel Angel Pichetto trailed far behind with 32%. And even though, since this sobering result, Macri has not stopped traveling throughout the country, shaking hands and promising better times to come, his days in the Casa Rosada are very likely numbered.

How long will the coalition last?

Uncertainty still reigns as to where things go from here for Argentina amid fears that Alberto Fernandez and Cristina Fernandez could have another falling out. Jimena Blanco, head of Americas research at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, says it is not a question of whether the 'Frente de Todos' coalition will break up — but when. According to Blanco, depending on how moderately Fernandez acts as president, he could split off from the more radical faction of Kirchnerism and govern from the center with the support of the Peronists. 

Argentina Presidential Debate  Mauricio Macri Alberto Fernandez
Macri and Fernandez have debated in public ahead of the electionsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/N. Pisarenko

But the future president will not face an easy job, she says, as he will first have to agree to realistic repayment conditions with Argentina's creditors, above all the IMF, before tackling inflation and trying to increase the country's competitiveness and productivity.

Argentinians will decide on Sunday who will help them emerge from the crisis. If none of the candidates pass the 45% threshold, the new government will be elected in a run-off on November 24.

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