Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

What Peronism’s White-Knuckle Deal Means for Argentina’s Presidential Race

Economy minister Sergio Massa emerged triumphant, aiding the struggling ruling bloc—but unity is a work in progress.
Argentine Economy Minister Sergio Massa in Montevideo on April 27.Dante Fernandez/AFP via Getty Images
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NEUQUÉN, Argentina—The cierre de listas, or closing of lists, is the most stressful day in Argentine politics, other than election day. It’s the day definitive party tickets have to be handed in to electoral authorities, and negotiations often last deep into the night.

But it’s hard to remember a cierre de listas that was as wild a ride as the one last week in the Peronist governing coalition, when the presumptive presidential candidate changed in the last 24 hours—after other parties had already announced their tickets—and, as the Argentine saying has it, “everyone gunning for the papacy ended up a cardinal.”

The dramatic, white-knuckle result saw the economy minister, Sergio Massa, emerge as the presumptive nominee. Massa and the governing bloc will face a steep uphill battle: the opposition is currently seen as the favorite to win, with inflation running at 114% (the highest in decades), poverty rates up to 39% and one recent survey showing incumbent President Alberto Fernández with the lowest approval rating in 17 years.

But Massa’s emergence is already reshaping the presidential race, restoring a modicum of much-needed, if precarious, morale to the bloc—one contingent on his maintaining the united support of Peronism’s fractious political factions.

Striking a deal

How did the deal come together? Negotiations within the governing Peronist coalition involved three main factions: hardcore followers of influential Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner; an amorphous group of institutional leaders (union bosses, governors, cabinet officials) loosely clustered around the president; and Sergio Massa’s group, which is smaller but more committed.

Kirchneristas spent last year trying to convince Cristina Fernández to run for president again. She chose not to, predicting the Supreme Court would intervene to proscribe her if she did. Alberto Fernández’s plans for running for reelection were quashed early on. This opened up a novel scenario: no “natural” candidate. When Massa stepped up as economy minister, he was seen as laying a claim to the title. But persistent high inflation put a dent in his ambitions.

Until Friday, it seemed that the ruling coalition (now renamed “Unión por la Patria”) was heading toward a primary election between two candidates: former Buenos Aires governor Daniel Scioli, representing the president; and Eduardo “Wado” De Pedro, representing Kirchnerism.

Candidacies were announced, ads filmed, speeches given. But where would Massa end up? True, he did not bring down inflation, as he’d promised, but he took control of a spiraling economy and managed to make it this far, a feat that brought him enough political capital to demand a seat at the big table. Rumors had him running for the Senate in Buenos Aires alongside de Pedro.

A competitive primary sounded unusual for Peronism, which generally prefers the guidance of a strong leader. But the whole thing looked like acceptance of defeat in October’s elections: two months of internal struggle between two relatively little-known candidates, with Massa choosing the safe option of a seat in the legislature.

All of this was obliterated by a single tweet announcing Scioli and de Pedro were stepping down and that Massa would run as a unity candidate. Apparently, governors had put pressure on both Alberto and Cristina to cancel the primaries, which they saw as divisive. There would be a primary election, pitting Massa against leftist Peronist Juan Grabois, but it would be largely symbolic. Kirchnerismo would get the bulk of the legislative candidacies (with de Pedro running for the Senate), and the president’s faction got some congressional slots. The vice presidency would be a compromise: Agustín Rossi is Alberto Fernández’s current chief of cabinet, but he was a prominent and loyal supporter during the Kirchner years.

Kirchnerist Whatsapp chats rumbled in dissatisfaction: They never liked Massa, seen as pro-business and the State Department’s man in Buenos Aires. They complained about Wado’s mistreatment. But as the dust began to settle, a clear picture began to emerge.

What Massa means

Sergio Massa chose to run because he believes he can win. This might sound obvious, but it is not. The opposition is widely seen as the favorite, whether led by Horacio Rodríguez Larreta or Patricia Bullrich, who will face each other in a primary. Prominent Peronists have expressed a sense of doom and defeat in private.

Massa does not share that belief, and now he has put his money where his mouth is: There is no plum Senate seat for him if he loses. What’s more, Massa’s candidacy isn’t as much of a reverse for Cristina Fernández as it might seem. She had long favored a unity candidacy, and admitted herself that de Pedro was a “plan B” option. She’s no ally of Massa, but respects his ambitions: Only those who bet big win big, she said.

The road to October will be steep for Peronism and success is far from assured. But with a unity candidate, the race can begin. Markets and business leaders have reacted favorably to Massa’s candidacy. He has a direct line to the Argentine industrial lobby, and good ties to U.S. Democrats. Now, Massa will be hoping to prevent another run on the peso, obtain a waiver from the International Monetary Fund in the next month and demonstrate that markets aren’t against him.

But questions remain. Will economic stability be maintained? Will Kirchnerism rally around Massa? He will need Cristina’s followers, the core voters of Peronism. But to govern he’ll need to share power and defy her authority. Her faction could still desert Massa, trusting they’ll win key legislative races and stay in power that way. It would help if Bullrich, with her plans of structural adjustments and hardline stance on social protest, wins the opposition primary—allowing Massa to pose as a moderate while motivating Peronist cadres.

One thing is clear. The deal on the party ticket may be sealed, but the next transformation of Peronism—a process that happens every generation or so in Argentina—has only begun. The process looks sure to be turbulent and acrimonious, and what the final product will look like remains to be seen, but it will probably bear Massa’s imprint.

Casullo is a political scientist and professor at the National University of Río Negro and CONICET.

Tags: Argentina, Peronism, Sergio Massa, Union por la Patria
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