BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina’s embattled President Mauricio Macri took to the streets on Saturday with a defiant message: “Yes we can,” he told crowds of supporters in Buenos Aires as he looks to launch an unlikely comeback ahead of general elections next month.
In spring sunshine, tens of thousands of people waving Argentine flags or banners with slogans saying “Vote for Macri” and “Together we can do it” gathered in the capital with the center-right leader, widely written off after a shock landslide defeat in a primary vote in August.
“You are waiting for me to tell you this election can be turned around. Of course it can,” Macri said to cheers at the first of 30 planned “Yes, we can” marches ahead of the Oct. 27 vote.
“We are going to defend the country that we all want together,” Macri said, promising that economic growth and jobs were coming if voters would stick with him.
The odds, however, are against him. Macri was trounced by 16 points in a primary election in August and pollsters have him even further behind main rival Alberto Fernandez, a result that would hand the Peronist challenger an easy win next month.
“The likelihood of Macri coming back and winning is so small that no-one is talking about it,” said Guido Chamorro, a portfolio manager for Pictet Asset Management in London.
“We have had a lot of surprises with elections, but that would be the biggest surprise of the year for emerging markets.”
Reading the elections is key as global trade partners and investors position themselves to deal with likely political upheaval in Latin America’s No. 3 economy, a key grains exporter that is juggling debt obligations with creditors, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), amid concerns about default.
The shock result in the primaries - a good barometer of the likely general election outcome - upended what many had seen as a close election race. Argentine markets crumbled the day after the Aug. 11 vote on fears of political turmoil ahead.
Macri was forced to roll out measures, including capital controls to protect the peso currency, and announce plans to renegotiate the country’s debts - policies many saw as a recognition from Macri that his race was already run.
“These measures were already anticipated to be adopted by an eventual Fernandez administration,” a person familiar with policymaking at Argentina’s central bank said, adding the bank had shifted to damage control mode after the primary.
A spokesman for the president’s office reiterated Macri was in the election race to win. “Not only did more than 100,000 people accompany President Macri at this start of the campaign, but we showed that we are more united than ever and we will win the election,” he told Reuters.
A central bank spokesman said the institution was an “independent body” and that “what it always did and does is care for the stability of the Argentine economy.”
With sluggish growth, inflation over 50% and rising poverty, Macri’s bid for reelection was never going to be easy.
But in a country that once famously cycled through five presidents in two weeks, political analysts cautioned that the number one rule in Argentine politics was that anything was possible.
“I wouldn’t 100% rule out the possibility that there is some unexpected development and Macri makes it to a second round,” said Megan Cook, a Buenos Aires-based political and regulatory risk expert at advisory Cefeidas Group.
“But I think it is incredibly unlikely.”
If Fernandez gets over 45% of the vote or over 40% with a 10-point lead over Macri, he would win outright in the first round, without the need for a second round run-off. The primary election result suggests that is the likely outcome.
There is, however, some margin for doubt, analysts said. And even a more positive showing could have an impact, helping to give Macri’s coalition more voice in Congress even if he loses.
There are about 385,000 votes up for grabs from Argentines living abroad who are not eligible to vote in the primary. Some supporters may have skipped the primaries, while others could switch votes to Macri from fringe candidates.
It also would not be Macri’s first comeback. He lost by an 8-point gap in the 2015 primary election, closing that gap in the first round and then triumphing in the head-to-head.
Some Macri voters, like Guillermo Eugenio Bansas, 65, are also not ready to accept defeat.
“I think he can turn it around. Look at this... it’s a beautiful day. We could be anywhere else, but we are here,” Eugenio Bansas told Reuters at the Saturday march.
Macri’s backers added recent economic turmoil could harden fears about potential interventionist policies under Fernandez and his running mate, divisive populist ex-president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. The two are not related.
Congressman Eduardo Amadeo, a member of Macri’s party, said concerns about the “dangers” of Kirchnerism - referring to policies under Fernandez de Kirchner and her late husband Nestor Kirchner - would play into the Macri’s favour.
“The marches the president is launching now will put emphasis on people’s values, and we believe that this will be positive when it’s time to vote,” Amadeo added.
Reporting by Cassandra Garrison; additional reporting by Nicolas Misculin, Horacio Soria and Claudia Gaillard in Buenos Aires and Marc Jones in London; Editing by Marguerita Choy