FOR MERCEDES, a shop assistant in the centre of Buenos Aires, the decision took itself. “We voted last time for the president because we wanted a better life, especially for our children. But life was worse under him. We worked more to have less.”
Mercedes was speaking the morning after voters delivered a thumbs-down to Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s president, in the country’s primary elections. The opposition, led by a veteran Peronist, Alberto Fernández, with the country’s last president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (no relation) as his running mate, won 47% of the votes cast. Mr Macri’s coalition won 32%.
No opinion pollster had predicted the scale of Mr Macri’s humiliation. The vote triggered a market sell-off; the Argentine peso fell by 20% when markets opened on August 12th. Investors see Mr Macri as the best chance of reform and they are terrified by a return to the populism of Ms Fernández, whose presidency between 2007 and 2015 left Argentina in penury.
In a purely technical sense, the vote held on August 11th was meaningless. Since neither Mr Macri nor Mr Fernández was contested in his party, nobody actually won or lost. But since, unusually, all Argentines over the age of 16 are legally obliged to vote, it was in effect a full dress rehearsal for the real election, the first round of which will be held at the end of October. In that sense, it was a crushing defeat for Mr Macri. If they can get more than 45% again in the real thing, the Fernández ticket will soar to victory in the first round.
The defeat was all-encompassing: Mr Macri was behind in the province of Buenos Aires; in the industrial centre of Rosario; and in the wine capital of Mendoza. One of the big winners, Axel Kicillof, who served as economy minister in Ms Fernández’s government, and is now running to be governor of Buenos Aires province, said the result was down to “people not knowing if they can... get to the end of the month and pay their bills.” In Buenos Aires province, home to almost two fifths of the electorate, Ms Fernández’s electoral machine worked brilliantly, with party apparatchiks reminding supporters how to vote. Mr Macri relied instead on social media to get his message out.
A currency crisis last year saw the peso plunge and central-bank interest rates rise to 40%. Mr Macri was forced to seek a $57bn loan from the IMF. In order to satisfy the terms of the bailout, he has cut spending and raised the prices of raised prices of utilities, such as gas and electricity, and public transport. The crisis has taken a heavy toll on the economy. Argentina has been in recession for the past year; inflation is over 50%.
In the president’s inner circle, his vice-presidential candidate Miguel Angel Pichetto, the lifelong Peronist politician who defected to join Mr Macri, said: “The middle class that once voted for the government is punishing it.” He said that the president needs to take responsibility.
In remarks welcoming his victory, Mr Fernández went out of his way to stress a moderate agenda. “We were never crazy governing before,” he declared. His advisers say that they never expected to do so well in the primary. According to one, he will now tread carefully. “Every fall in the peso will translate into higher prices, and make his job as president that much tougher.”
That said, he may struggle to convince the markets of his credibility. Mr Fernández had warned in the final days of the campaign that devaluation of the peso was coming. He also promised to re-negotiate the record $57bn loan agreed last year with IMF, and said that he could in effect default on Argentine bonds.
One unresolved question is what will be the role of Ms Fernández. The former president is under indictment for several corruption charges (all of which she denies); she kept a low profile in the campaign. Although a solid third of voters remained loyal to her, many of the rest dislike her. Her choice to run as vice-president to Mr Fernández, instead of seeking the top job again, seems to be proving a master-stroke.
Inside Mr Macri’s camp, the mood was doom-laden. “This is a catastrophe,” said one of his advisors. “It’s almost impossible to come back from this, a mountain too high to climb.” The president himself admitted defeat quickly. “We've had a very bad election,” he said, promising to fight on until October’s vote. One of Mr Macri’s leading supporters, the former presidential candidate Elisa Carrio, criticised the president’s team, arguing that they were out of touch with ordinary people. Mr Macri expressed hope that the opposition would show “responsibility” in the weeks ahead.
“Many Argentines understand the need for structural reforms, they understand the enormous corruption of the last government, but in the end they voted to put food in the mouths of their families,” says Eduardo D’Alessio, of D’Alessio/Berensztein, a polling firm.
Could the collapse in the markets persuade Argentines to change their minds? Mr D’Alessio reckons not: it would take “a huge, obvious mistake” by the two Fernándezes before October to keep Mr Macri in office, he says. It may seem a long shot, but then, odder things have happened in Argentine politics.