October 24, 2017 / 7:54 PM / a month ago

Argentina midterm vote leaves Peronism divided, leaderless

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - The victory of Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s coalition in midterm elections on Sunday marked a resounding defeat of Peronism, one of Latin America’s best-known political movements, leaving it divided and with no clear leader.

Argentina's President Mauricio Macri smiles during a news conference at the Casa Rosada Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires, Argentina October 23, 2017. Picture taken October 23, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

In particular, a win by Macri’s candidate over former President Cristina Fernandez in Buenos Aires province, the cradle of Peronism, diminishes her chances of returning to the presidency in 2019 and opens the door to a new era of business friendly reforms.

While it is too soon to call the end of Peronism as a political force, the ‘Let’s Change’ movement founded by Macri, a former businessman and soccer mogul, has introduced a generation of new politicians who are less interested in dwelling on the emotion and imagery of Argentina’s past than their predecessors.

“We know that if we win, there will be renewal in Congress, but above all that people will accept that the country has changed,” Macri’s chief campaign strategist Jaime Duran Barba said in a recent interview ahead of the election.

He pointed to Buenos Aires governor, 44-year-old Maria Eugenia Vidal, and 51-year-old Buenos Aires City Mayor, Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, both from Macri’s coalition, as examples of the leaders of the future.

Macri’s coalition won close to 42 percent of the national vote on Sunday, when Argentina elected a third of the Senate and half the lower chamber. That still leaves Macri short of a majority in Congress but new alliances should enable him to pass tax, capital market and labour reforms.

Fernandez, who succeeded her late husband Nestor Kirchner in 2007, won two presidential elections thanks to nationalist appeals and generous social welfare programs.

She drew comparisons to Eva Peron, whose support for the country’s poor means she is still adored by many working class Argentines 65 years after her death.

“Evita,” as she is known worldwide, was the wife of General Juan Peron, the founder of the Peronist movement. Focussed on workers’ rights, its economic policies have veered from protectionist to free-market and it defies easy classification. In different forms, it has been Argentina’s dominant political force since the 1940s.

Argentina’s electoral list system guaranteed Fernandez a Senate seat and some political influence with her second-place finish, but she lost by more than four percentage points to Macri’s little-known former education minister in the bellwether province that is home to nearly 40 percent of voters.

In October, 57 percent of Buenos Aires province citizens said they would never vote for Fernandez, according to a poll by Management & Fit. Pollster Poliarquia said that, nationwide, 53 percent of Argentines have a negative view of Fernandez, while 30 percent have a positive view.

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, former Argentine President and candidate for the Senate in the mid-term primary elections, attends a news conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina October 10, 2017. Picture taken October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

Many Argentines blame Fernandez for isolating them economically with protectionist policies and cutting the country off from international capital markets. Now the centre of a number of corruption investigations, Fernandez personally denies committing graft, though she admits there may have been corruption in her government.

“Peronism today is rebuilding itself, leaving behind a very negative era,” said Enrique Zuleta Puceiro, director of pollster OPSM. “There are not any leaders with high levels of national influence.”

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With less clout in Congress, moderate Peronist governors are weighing joining Macri’s reform agenda or abandoning their political careers. They have distanced themselves from Fernandez, who formed a new party for the election.

Macri told Reuters in August that he could negotiate with a new generation of Peronist governors like Juan Manuel Urtubey of Salta and Sergio Unac of San Juan, who worked with him to reach an agreement to cut spending.

“If Peronism does not renew itself it is destined to disappear,” Urtubey told Perfil newspaper, before his coalition in Salta lost heavily to Macri’s allies in the election.

Since taking office in late 2015, Macri has worked to literally dismantle Peronist symbols, taking down portraits and closing museums to get rid of their cultural legacies.

However, given its historical weight and habit of renovation, most analysts say it is too soon to write Peronism’s obituary.

“Giving up Peronism for dead, thinking it will remain fragmented and confused until 2019, I believe is an error,” said Marcos Buscaglia, founding partner at Buenos Aires political and economic consultancy Alberdi Partners.

Paula Alonso, director of the Latin American and Hemispheric Studies Program at George Washington University, said Argentina’s former Peronist leaders - including Peron himself, Carlos Menem, and the Kirchners - had generally risen swiftly to power from relative obscurity.

“It’s unpredictable in many ways, and therefore it is always relevant,” she said.

Writing by Caroline Stauffer; Additional reporting by Eliana Raszewski and Luc Cohen, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien

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