Investors wondering whether President Mauricio Macri’s tough austerity reforms had popular support heard a resounding “yes” on Sunday, when voters swept his center-right coalition to victory in Argentina’s five largest voting districts in a crucial mid-term election. While Macri’s success was expected, no party has managed this feat in mid-term elections since 1985.
Here are four conclusions to take away from the results:
1. There’s an open path to Macri’s re-election in 2019
In total, Macri’s coalition won in 12 provinces as well as the city of Buenos Aires, and increased its share of votes from general elections two years ago. Further, the defeat of some of its highest profile leaders across the country left the opposition without a figure strong enough to pose a convincing threat to Macri’s re-election in two years.
“You don’t really have anyone ahead of Macri in 2019,” said Daniel Kerner, head of the Latin America practice at Eurasia Group, a consultancy.
Nowhere was this more telling than in the populous Buenos Aires province, where Education Minister Esteban Bullrich defeated former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner by four points – a larger margin than polls had predicted and a blow to any aspirations she may have had to challenge Macri for the presidency in 2019.
2. Macri’s reform agenda gets a needed boost
Voters’ forceful message of support for the president’s agenda allayed investors’ fears that policies could be reversed by a new administration come 2019.
The prospect of a second Macri term could also send a message to opposition politicians who may rethink their stance on working with Macri’s allies in Congress, said Kerner.
“The rest of the Peronist party will see that he is the leader of the Argentine political system,” Kerner told AQ. “That enhances his ability to get more done.”
Many observers see the continuation of Macri’s reform agenda, which includes labor reform and an overhaul of tax laws, as critical to the economy’s recovery from recession. In the short term, markets are already responding positively to the results: Argentina’s stock index and currency were both up the morning after the election.
3. The opposition must rebuild itself without an obvious leader
Licking their wounds, opposition figures were quick to recognize the need to rethink strategy ahead of 2019.
“Now more than ever, we must be self-critical,” said Florencio Randazzo, a former interior minister and Peronist politician who finished fourth in the Senate race in the province of Buenos Aires.
Because Fernández’s Citizens’ Unity coalition finished second in the province, she still gets a seat in the Senate. But it isn’t clear whether she or any other Peronist leaders will have the political capital to challenge an emboldened Macri government. While Fernández insisted in her concession speech that her party would remain the chief voice of opposition to Macri’s agenda, her defeat in what has historically been a bastion of Kirchnerismo suggests she might be overestimating her influence. Fernández also lost in Santa Cruz, which was instrumental to her initial rise in Argentine politics and is governed by her sister-in-law, Alicia Kirchner.
Another important Peronist candidate, former presidential contender Sergio Massa, finished third both in the province and in his hometown of Tigre, where he served as mayor before his election to Congress in 2013.
Until recently, Fernández’s dominance among Peronists had not allowed the emergence of new leaders, said Maria Victoria Murillo, a political scientist at Columbia University. Her defeat sent a “really important signal for Peronist governors to move forward looking for alternative leaders.”
But voters’ rejection of Peronist candidates can’t be pinned just on Fernández. Peronists also lost in Salta province, casting doubt on the political future of the province’s governor, Juan Manuel Urtubey, who has positioned himself as a Peronist alternative to Kirchnerism and declared his interest in running for president in 2019.
4. Democracy worked
At a time when electoral politics has delivered big morning-after surprises, this one played out largely as predicted. There were few curveballs that left voters and analysts scrambling to understand what happened. The polls were reliable, turnout was high, and candidates respected the results.
This is reassuring in a region where democratic mores are increasingly viewed with skepticism. After a polarizing campaign season, Macri used his first press conference the morning after the vote to bridge differences, calling for a national dialogue to guide the deepening of his government’s reforms.
The big question in coming months will be whether the government can bring the opposition to the table. Some opposition leaders may take Fernández’s loss as an opportunity to move away from her polarizing political strategy of complete resistance to the government, and strike a more pragmatic position, said Roberto Sifón-Arévalo, a managing director for Standard & Poor’s Global Ratings who focuses on Latin America.
“Those who want to be seen as a more moderate version of the Peronist party won’t want to be seen as opposing everything just to oppose everything,” said Sifón-Arévalo.
As the opposition tries to recover from its losses, the government should be careful not to take its approval at the polls too far, feeding an unhealthy political imbalance, said Kerner. That will be the government’s challenge going forward, he said.
“They need to control themselves in terms of how hard they push for what they want to achieve,” he said.
O’Boyle is an editor for Americas Quarterly