Argentine President Mauricio Macri / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH
Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri faces an important test of strength Sunday in mid-term legislative elections as he seeks to refresh a mandate for pro-market economic reforms.
Opinion polls give Macri’s ruling coalition the advantage against a center-left opposition led by former president Cristina Kirchner, who is running for a senate seat from the province of Buenos Aires, home to 40 percent of the country’s 33.1 million voters.
Kirchner’s campaign pitch has been to promise to “put the breaks on” Macri’s cuts in tariffs on agricultural exports, deficit spending and loosening of labor laws.
Macri, for his part, appealed to voters to “not return to the past,” attacking his predecessor’s populist policies.
“A victory for Macri would be a sign that populism is out and that the economic direction is being maintained,” said Rosendo Fraga, a political consultant with the firm Nueva Mayoria.
The mother of all battles will be in the province of Buenos Aires, an area the size of Italy.
“There is an intensification of the polarization in Buenos Aires,” said political analyst Facundo Nejamkis, of the consulting firm Opina Argentina.
Kirchner won the most votes in the province in August 13 primaries, but Macri’s coalition was the biggest vote getter nationally.
In Sunday’s vote, Kirchner is running against Esteban Bullrich, a colorless politician.
But Macri’s most effective advocate in the province has been Buenos Aires governor Maria Eugenia Vidal, a rising star who in 2015 defeated Kirchner’s Peronists in their own stronghold.
Polling firms Gonzalez y Valladares, Management & Fit, Rouvier, Circuitos, Poliarquía, Sinopsys, Taquion y Opinaia all predicted Macris forces winning in Buenos Aires by a margin of 3.5 percent.
Up for grabs are half the 254-seat Chamber of Deputies and a third of the 72-seat Senate.
Macri’s coalition, dubbed “Cambiemos” or “Let’s Change,” is an alliance of parties of the right, center-right and social democrats of the historic Radical Civic Union.
Despite not having a legislative majority, Macri has been able to get laws passed by striking deals with Kirchner’s enemies in the Peronist movement and with governors who depend on federal funds to finance their budgets.
Macri’s first year in office was marked by a 30 percent devaluation of the national currency and a 2.3 percent contraction of the economy.
But the economy has begun to recover, posting 1.6 percent growth in the first half of the year.
Although growth remains below the levels reached before 2010 under the back-to-back husband-and-wife governments of Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, in power from 2003 to 2015.
Macri has gained support for his economic reforms from the United States, the European Union and international lending institutions. He was showered with praise at a recent forum of Argentine business leaders.
In the past week, the discovery of the body of a pro-indigenous activist who disappeared after a police crackdown in Patagonia prompted the suspension of the election campaign.
Fraga said the case shocked the country and dominated the news cycle. But Nejamkis said he did not think the impact was “sufficient to generate a reaction from the electorate.”
Macri is an engineer by profession from a wealthy family that founded a business empire. His launching pad into politics was his chairmanship of the Boca Juniors football club, which won numerous local and international titles under his leadership.
Kirchner, on the other hand, is a former militant in the most combative Peronist factions during the difficult 1970s, when the country was run by a repressive military dictatorship. Her politics moderated with the return of democracy in Argentina.
She has been prosecuted for alleged corruption in office, but she insists she is the victim of political persecution.
Macri also has faced accusations stemming from the “Panama Papers” scandal, which revealed the rich and powerful’s use of offshore accounts to secretly move money and evade taxes. But the complaint against him was quickly dismissed.
Both political movements have sought to use corruption cases to mobilize public support, but skepticism is high in a country where voters tend to be guided by their economic interests in casting their ballots.