Argentina’s ruling Peronists suffer heavy defeat in midterm primaries

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President Alberto Fernández’s leftist Peronist party has suffered a heavy defeat in Argentina’s midterm primaries, a result that pointed to the government’s senate majority being at risk in November’s elections.

The centre-right opposition coalition Juntos (Together) recorded the biggest win since it was formed in 2015, taking 41 per cent of the nationwide vote compared with the government’s 30 per cent, with 96 per cent of votes counted.

Voting is supposed to be compulsory in Argentina’s primary elections, so the ballot to choose party candidates acts as a nationwide opinion poll for the midterms in two months’ time, when half the lower house of congress and one-third of the senate will be renewed.

In Sunday’s voting Juntos won in most key districts including the province of Buenos Aires, a historic Peronist stronghold which is home to one-third of Argentina’s population.

Voters expressed anger with the government for failing to deliver on its promises of curbing inflation, improving salaries and boosting the economy. The Peronists imposed one of the world’s longest lockdowns, which crippled the economy yet failed to control infections. Argentina has one of the world’s highest Covid-19 death rates per capita.

“We know there’s a lot of sadness and pain in the country, and not a lot to celebrate. But today we made a first step towards change,” said opposition politician María Eugenia Vidal, who won the most votes in the national congressional primary in the city of Buenos Aires.

Flanked by the opposition’s two best-known figures, former president Mauricio Macri and Buenos Aires mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, she added: “There’s still some way to go, but I am convinced there is no way back.”

La Nación newspaper published a projection suggesting that if Sunday’s results were repeated at the election on November 14, the Peronists would be two seats short of a senate majority.

Argentina’s president Alberto Fernández makes the ‘Victory’ sign after casting his vote in Buenos Aires on Sunday, September 12 © Marcos Brindicci/AP

The government already lacks an overall majority in the lower house.

“Evidently there’s something we didn’t do right, and that’s why people didn’t back us,” Fernández said in a speech after the primary results were published. “There are clearly voter demands that we didn’t adequately satisfy.”

Although Fernández was flanked by vice-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the powerful former president whom many see as the real leader of the government, Fernández was the sole speaker. His remarks suggested changes to his administration could be expected in the coming weeks.

The Peronists inherited an economic crisis from Macri but during their two years in power, poverty has continued to rise, annual inflation is now running at more than 50 per cent and there have been more than 100,000 Covid-related deaths.

A much-mooted deal with the IMF to reschedule $44bn of debt has still not materialised and projected growth this year of 6.4 per cent will not make up all the ground lost last year, when the economy crashed 10 per cent.

The opposition called for extra efforts to repeat the primary triumph in November. Vidal took 33 per cent of the vote in the capital and when combined with the two other candidates in her coalition — pro-market economist Ricardo López Murphy and the Radical Party’s Adolfo Rubinstein — their tally rose to 48 per cent, double that of the sole government candidate, Leandro Santoro.

In Buenos Aires Province, the Juntos coalition ticket of Diego Santilli and Facundo Manes won 38 per cent, five points more than Fernández’s close ally Victoria Tolosa Paz.

Santilli and Vidal winning their primaries and beating Peronism in arguably the two most important districts of the country is a major boost to the presidential hopes of Larreta, the main backer of both.

Also of note was the rise of outsider libertarian-right economist Javier Milei, who took 14 per cent of the vote in the capital after campaigning against the “political caste”.

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