What’s behind the “historic” defeat of Kirchnerism in Argentina’s parliamentary primaries (and why it matters)

The Frente de Todos, led by Alberto Fernández, suffered a categorical defeat on Sunday.

The Frente de Todos, led by Alberto Fernández, suffered a categorical defeat on Sunday.

The ruling Frente de Todos, led by the Kirchnerists Alberto Fernández and former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, lost the mid-term primary elections in the main districts of the country.

The ruling coalition barely prevailed in 7 of the 24 electoral districts and it lost what was considered its greatest bastion: the province of Buenos Aires.

He also lost in the Patagonian Santa Cruz, the political cradle of the Kirchners.

The result of the legislative primaries surprised everyone: the same force that two years ago had managed to come to power with 48% of the votes, this time achieved an adhesion of just 30%.

Obviously we have not done something right“, Fernández acknowledged in a speech late on Sunday, after the results were known.

“All of us who are here only want the happiness of our people and that is why we have worked hard, but it has been insufficient,” he said, escorted by his vice president, the governor of Buenos Aires and the candidates who headed the legislative lists of the ruling party.

From all sides they recognize that what happened on Sunday was a “vote punishment“.

And although it was only a primary election – the elections will be held on November 14 – even the president himself admitted that they functioned as “a huge poll.”

In that sense, the forcefulness of the defeat led some to speculate that the ruling party could not only lose the next legislative elections, but also jeopardize its continuity in 2023.

Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner take office in 2019

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Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner prevailed comfortably in 2019, but two years later they have suffered a categorical defeat.

During his speech, Fernández alluded to the end of his term, saying: “All I want is to end my term with less poverty and more work for everyone“.

But he trusted that, in the two months until the legislative elections, it will be possible to “turn this story around.”

Macrism resurfaces

The reason these Mandatory Simultaneous Open Primary Elections – or STEP – are being given so much importance is that they have not only shown the weakness of the ruling party.

They have also pointed to an unexpected resurgence of Juntos por el Cambio, the center-right coalition led by former President Mauricio Macri, which presented a renewed leadership.

Against all odds, “Juntos” – its new name – prevailed in most of the country, even winning in provinces in the north and south where it had lost categorically just two years ago.

The most emblematic victory occurred in the Buenos Aires province (which represents almost 40% of the national electorate), where the opposition group won by five points of difference.

The ruling party, which in 2019 had swept 55% of the votes, this time did not reach 34% (with more than 90% of the votes counted).

The comfortable triumph of Juntos strengthens the aspirations of the Macri’s dolphin, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, current mayor of the city of Buenos Aires, who is emerging as the main opposition presidential candidate in the 2023 elections.

The mayor of the city of Buenos Aires, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and the former governor of Buenos Aires, María Eugenia Vidal, in a street sign in Buenos Aires

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The mayor of the city of Buenos Aires, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, is considered the main card of the macrismo for the next presidential elections.

United Peronism

One of the reasons why these elections are considered historic is that they not only represent an electoral failure of Kirchnerism, but also a unusual defeat of Peronism, the force that encompasses the Frente de Todos.

Although it is not the first time that a Peronist government suffers an electoral fall, it is the first time that a coalition that brings together the different aspects of the movement founded by Juan Domingo Perón has fallen at the polls.

Some believe that rivalries – or “internal”, as they are called here – within power they have weakened Fernández, who often must answer questions from the press about alleged short circuits with his vice president, Cristina Kirchner.

Fernández was a harsh critic of the ex-president before she surprised everyone in 2019 by announcing that she had asked him to head the presidential formula (which everyone assumed she would head).

But beyond the internal fights, the discontent of Argentines with the government has more to do with its handling of two key issues that go hand in hand: the economy and the pandemic.

“Without a doubt it was an economic vote,” says Facundo Cruz, a political scientist at the University of Buenos Aires and the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella.

“The government hoped that getting vaccines would be enough to cover the economic problems, scandals and internal problems.”

“But failed to get money into people’s pockets“, resume.

Alberto Fernández, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the leaders of the Frente de Todos

The union of Peronism was key to the electoral triumph of 2019, but internal disagreements and economic problems have weakened the president.

The main problem that afflicts Argentines is inflation, which skyrocketed during the last two years of the Macri government, and today it is back around the 50% year-on-year.

With prices that increase between a 3% and 4% every month -more than the annual inflation of many countries- and salaries, pensions and state aid that do not go up to par, almost half of the population has fallen below la line of poverty, according to figures from the government’s Social Policy Coordination Council.

Some economists argue that the record monetary issue, to which Fernández went to face the pandemic -a lack of access to credit-, has contributed to the rise in prices, so printing more money is not a solution to which he can now appeal to contain discontent.

Structural and own problems

Cruz highlights to BBC Mundo that economic and structural problems, exacerbated by the pandemic, have contributed to the electoral defeats of several governments in the region, as happened in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and the Dominican Republic.

However, he points out that, in the case of Argentina, the problems brought on by the coronavirus were added by the “unforced errors” of the government.

A ballot box in Argentina's primary elections

Argentine voters punished the government on Sunday.

Several have to do with scandals related to the handling of the pandemic, such as the so-called “VIP vaccination” that led to the resignation of the Minister of Health, after revealing that officials and personalities close to the government had discretionary access to covid vaccines.

Or the most recent “Olivos-Gate”: the publication of photos of Fernández celebrating the birthday of his partner, the first lady Fabiola Yáñez, along with a group of friends, in the presidential residence of Olivos, in July 2020, in violation of social restrictions that he himself had decreed.

Many also do not forgive the president for having imposed a quarantine of several months – at the time, the longest in the world – which had profound social and economic consequences, but failed to prevent the country from exceeding the number of 110,000 deaths from covid.

Even vaccination, one of the most celebrated achievements by the government (more than 60% of the population was inoculated with one dose and 40% with two) has been the target of criticism, after the problems with the supply of the two vaccines used, AstraZeneca and Sputnik V, and the delay in purchasing Pfizer vaccines.

“Obviously there are mistakes we have made,” the president acknowledged in his speech, assuring that “we will learn from them.”

There is an unmet demand and starting tomorrow we are going to take care of paying attention and solving the problem, “he said.

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