Are Argentina’s divided politics holding the country back from a stable economy?
Juan Manuel Urtubey thinks so, and he believes he’s the man to put an end to the power struggle between President Mauricio Macri and his predecessor Cristina Fernández de Kirchner that has dominated Argentine politics since 2015.
Macri and Kirchner are leading polls ahead of October’s presidential election, but a number of candidates – both political insiders and outsiders – hope a desire for change among voters could create an opening for a third option. That includes Urtubey, an ally-turned-critic of Kirchner serving his third term as governor of Argentina’s northwestern Salta province.
Breaking through to a polarized electorate won’t be easy. Urtubey, 48, hasn’t run in a national race before, and he’ll first need to defeat better-known opponents in the August primaries. Currently, election polls measure his support against other candidates in the single digits. Meanwhile, polls show Macri and Kirchner each drawing the support of about a third of the electorate in a first round vote.
But in an interview with AQ, Urtubey struck an optimistic note, embracing his underdog status and insisting Macri and Kirchner’s bases were smaller than polls suggest.
“I’m starting from a lower level of support than everyone else since I’m new to the scene,” Urtubey told AQ. “But I think that’s exactly what Argentina is looking for.”
This interview was translated from Spanish and has been edited for clarity and length.
AQ: To become president, you’re going to have to break through the polarization in Argentina. What is the path to doing this?
Urtubey: Only about half of the country is polarized. Electoral forecasts show that almost half of Argentines want a change in government but don’t want to go back to kirchnerismo either. Our challenge, and mine in particular, is to be able to represent that half of Argentines who are essentially centrists and who understand that neither of the two extremes can represent them effectively.
AQ: But to win you’ll have to unite voters of different groups – from the left, the right and the center. Is there a policy that those different groups can all get behind?
Urtubey: I’m proposing a government of national unity. How do you do that? By changing the political system. In 1994 there was a constitutional reform that allowed Argentina to move toward a semi-parliamentary system, but unfortunately successive governments have instead gone deeper into hyper-presidentialism and hyper-personalism. Argentina needs a change in order to guarantee some predictability and to stabilize politics. We’re dealing with a severe economic crisis that is the product of Argentina’s political volatility. The challenge for me is to stabilize politics so that we can work toward a stable economic model.
AQ: And what does that economic model look like?
Urtubey: The sharp drop in our currency reflects a loss of confidence in Argentina. How are we going to get that confidence back? We’ve got to guarantee the stability of norms and the rule of law. And we’ve got to establish medium- and long-term plans with greater political consensus. The only way to produce lasting consensus with the track record that Argentina has is to change the system.
AQ: Would your economic model look more like that of Macri or Fernández de Kirchner?
Urtubey: Neither of the two. Argentina needs something different. It needs a productive model that operates under the logic of fiscal discipline and creates the conditions for a competitive economy. That means getting away from the two extremes we’ve seen with Macri and Kirchner: with one, a market that self-regulates, and the other, a market defined by a totalitarianism that practically suffocates private investment. Argentina needs to help our productive sectors be competitive while also guaranteeing we’re adding value to our work and exporting more than just commodities.
AQ: Argentina’s country risk increased by 130 percent in 2018 and is the second worst in Latin America after Venezuela. What’s your plan for reassuring investors?
Urtubey: I would do what I’ve done in Salta and move Argentina toward fiscal equilibrium. The problem we have is that we go about doing this without growing GDP, which has a higher social cost. You’ve got to create conditions for growth while keeping public spending stable. That’s the big challenge. We have to move toward a model in which the fiscal deficit isn’t a permanent fixture in Argentina – something that’s been hurting us for almost 40 years.
AQ: Sergio Massa, who you’re likely to face in the August primary to represent the new coalition of Peronists outside of kirchnerismo, says he would renegotiate the approximately $57.1 billion deal that Argentina signed with the IMF in September. What would you do?
Urtubey: From my point of view, there’s not a scenario in which Argentina can neglect its international commitments. As I’ve said, the heart of my economic plan is recovering confidence. Generating growth will benefit Argentina’s creditors, but for starters we have to fulfill our obligations.
AQ: You’ve said there’s a concentration of political power in Buenos Aires. What kind of perspective would you bring to the presidency as someone from Salta.
Urtubey: I think political decision-making today in Argentina is heavily concentrated in Buenos Aires instead of the part of Argentina that’s productive. We need to integrate the country, and I’ll rely on my experience governing a province that is far from the capital. We’ll also integrate the country by converting our system of government to a semi-parliamentary system. I’m proposing that the cabinet chief be appointed in agreement with Congress. When the cabinet chief is the product of an accord between Congress and the executive, naturally his or her policies are going to have to have a greater level of consensus.
AQ: But what happens if Congress chooses someone who doesn’t work well with the president?
Urtubey: They’ll have to work like every other parliamentary system until they reach an agreement. I’m aware doing so can be arduous. But I’m also aware that once decisions are reached, Argentina will have a level of stability it’s never had. Argentina’s current system is totally exhausted. The problem didn’t start with Macri or Cristina. So we have to change it.
O’Boyle is a senior editor for AQ. Follow him on Twitter @BrenOBoyle
Tags: 2019 Argentina Elections, Argentina, Argentina elections, Argentina Elections 2019, CFK, Juan Manuel Urtubey