Bad dress rehearsal
THE bizarre teaser election that Argentines had to take part in on August 11th was designed by Cristina Fernández, the president. She put her all into promoting her candidates, even flying her hand-picked hopeful for the most populous province of Buenos Aires to Brazil to be photographed with their compatriot, Pope Francis. Photographs of him, her and the pope were plastered across the province as campaign posters.
The pontiff’s magic did not rub off. Ms Fernández’s Front for Victory (FPV) party did worse than at any time in its ten-year existence. As a referendum of sorts on her rule, the year after she grabbed control of YPF, an oil company owned by Spain’s Repsol, it does not augur well ahead of the elections in October for half of the seats in the lower house of Congress and two-thirds of those in the upper house.
The election was nominally a primary aimed at weeding out the tiniest parties ahead of the mid-terms and enabling voters to choose which candidates should represent the bigger ones. In fact, most parties had picked their representatives beforehand, turning the process into a laborious straw poll.
The FPV, which has enjoyed a majority in both houses since Ms Fernández was re-elected with 54% of the vote in 2011, did best, winning 26% of all votes cast. But it was the only party to field candidates almost nationwide. It lost in the capital and in 14 of Argentina’s 23 provinces, including such traditional strongholds as Santa Cruz, the home province of her late husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner.
The most closely watched race was in the province of Buenos Aires, covering over a third of the country’s electorate, where Sergio Massa, one of the president’s former cabinet chiefs who bolted from the FPV in June, dealt his former boss her biggest setback. He beat her candidate, Martin Insaurralde, by five points.
Mr Insaurralde was a last-minute choice, so his poor performance was excusable. By some estimates, almost a third of voters did not recognise him, even though Ms Fernández joined him repeatedly on the stump. But the FPV’s feeble showing reflects wider problems. High inflation, a de facto ban on foreign-currency exchange, and other mishaps have led to a plunge in Ms Fernández’s approval ratings since 2011. It is highly unlikely that her party will win the two-thirds majorities in both houses in October that she would need to change the constitution to run for a third term, as her supporters want her to do. Her prestige is also badly dented, says Sergio Berensztein, a political consultant. “Even if the FPV maintains the status quo in Congress, Ms Fernández will not enjoy the same clout she has for the past two years,” he says. “Her days of ruling by decree are over.”
In the opposition camps victors were showered with confetti, as if they had won the real thing. But the seats up for grabs in the lower house in October are ones which the FPV hung on to in mid-term elections in 2009, when it was clobbered by Ms Fernández’s decision to raise export taxes on farm products. They should be among its safest seats. What is more, as she showed ahead of this dress rehearsal by ramping up public spending and social programmes, Ms Fernández has no scruples about putting the power of the presidency behind her party. The wily president cannot be counted out yet.