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With the president given a browbeating, Sergio Massa has become the man of the moment
President Cristina Fernández’s re-election hopes were quashed once and for all following a limp performance by her ruling coalition in Argentina’s midterm congressional elections on Sunday, so launching a battle for power that will come to a head in presidential elections in 2015.
After failing to secure the two-thirds majority she would need to amend the constitution and so run for a third term, Ms Fernández will be denied the chance to follow in the footsteps of other Latin American populist leaders who extended their rule through constitutional changes, such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa.
Although Argentina’s 60-year-old leader is recovering from an operation three weeks ago to treat bleeding on the brain after a head injury, government spokesmen said she will soon return to office invigorated. The majority she maintains in both houses of congress means she remains firmly in charge of the country.
In her continued absence, the man of the moment is Sergio Massa, Ms Fernández’s former cabinet chief, who thrashed the candidate of the ruling Front for Victory party (FPV) in the populous province of Buenos Aires. Mr Massa won with almost 44 per cent of the vote, leaving his rival, Ms Fernández’s chosen candidate, trailing with just 32 per cent.
Many believe that Mr Massa, who broke from the government in June and is considered to be more pragmatic and market-friendly than the president, is now a strong contender for the presidency in 2015. Mr Massa can criticise the government’s failings, particularly over the economy and crime, while credibly claiming to continue its successes.
“Millions of votes oblige us to cross the [provincial] frontier and start traversing the country,” said the 41-year-old suggestively in his victory speech, while refraining from declaring his candidacy outright.
Nevertheless, with two years to go until the election, some observers caution that Mr Massa could peak too early. They point to similar candidates who performed strongly in midterm elections but were eventually defeated – both Carlos Menem and Néstor Kirchner won the presidency as outsiders.
Indeed, one great unknown is how many candidates will present themselves from within the disparate Peronist movement, which both Ms Fernández and Mr Massa claim to belong to. It has been the dominant force in Argentina since its founder, Juan Domingo Perón, first won the presidency almost 70 years ago.
In large part, that will be determined by whether or not Ms Fernández decides to anoint a successor. Several provincial governors are thought to be in the running, including the loyal governor of Entre Ríos, Sergio Urribarri, and the governor of Chaco, Jorge Capitanich. The latter was a close companion of the president when they were both senators.
A question mark hangs over the more statesmanlike Daniel Scioli, governor of Buenos Aires province, by far the largest with 37 per cent of the population. On Sunday night he was uncomfortably mopping his brow on the podium beside Mr Massa’s defeated FPV opponent, for whom he had campaigned in Ms Fernández’s absence.
With the FPV in clear decline, it is highly unlikely the new president would come from its own ranks. This opens the door for the Peronist dissidents to gain office, heralding some significant changes in policy making and potentially bringing an improved business environment in Argentina
- Carlos Caicedo
“With the FPV in clear decline, it is highly unlikely the country’s new president would come from its own ranks. This opens the door for the Peronist dissidents to gain office, heralding some significant changes in policy making and potentially bringing an improved business environment in Argentina,” said Carlos Caicedo, a risk analyst at IHS. Argentine bond prices rallied slightly on Monday.
But two, or even three, Peronist candidates running in 2015 could split the Peronist vote, and increase the prospects of victory for an opposition candidate. Indeed, that is how the opposition last managed to win power, in 1999.
Hopes of incurable divisions within Peronism could explain the launch on Sunday night of the presidential campaign of Mauricio Macri, the centre-right mayor of Buenos Aires, who enjoys limited support beyond the capital city.
But Argentina’s long-fractured opposition may continue to deny itself another stint in power if other opposition candidates also throw their hats into the ring. This seems likely after two powerful regional politicians, Julio Cobos of Mendoza and socialist Hermes Binner of Santa Fe, hinted at their interest after convincing local victories on Sunday night.
In the meantime, the government has been at pains to point out that the FPV remains the country’s most voted-for political force. Opponents dismissed this as empty triumphalism.
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