Peronism Struggles for Unity as Election-day Inches Closer

17th April 2019

By Scott Squires

Peronism Struggles for Unity as Election-day Inches Closer

The phrase “united or dominated” was made famous in the 1950s by former president Juan Do-mingo Perón, speaking of what he thought Latin America’s alternatives were with regards to the world’s superpowers. Decades later, Peronisms’ current leaders could easily use those same words with regards to their race against President Mauricio Macri’s Cambiemos in the 2019 presidential elections, as they struggle to form an integrated front to unseat him.

Last Sunday, a united Peronism scored a landslide victory against Cambiemos in Entre Ríos, the country’s seventh-biggest province. That success has also been seen in other provinces where Peronists joined forces, but calls for unity have always hit a wall at the national level, where Cris-tina Fernández de Kirchner remains a divisive figure, while potential alternatives to her within the Justicialist Party (PJ) have also struggled to find a leader to rally behind.

Lavagna’s bid for union (without Cristina)

Among other potential candidates out of the moderate Peronist camp, Roberto Lavagna, who served as Economy and Production Minister under Eduardo Duhalde and Néstor Kirchner from 2002 to 2005, has enjoyed a moment in the limelight as of late. Lavagna played a major role in restructuring the country’s debt, bringing Argentina’s shattered economy back after the 2001-2002 economic collapse, and some middle-of-the-road voters see him as a potential alternative to Macri’s austerity and Fernández’s populism, both of whom have a significant core of supporters but also high disapproval ratings.

But the road toward a Lavagna presidency is far from assured. While the ex-minister would fare well in a head-to-head matchup against either Macri or Fernández, polls say he has not enough backing today to come second in October and reach a potential November runoff. In fact, he would probably have trouble rising above a swath of other potential moderate Peronist candidates in the August primaries.

Lavagna has said that he will only run for president if there is “broad-based support” among Peronists for his candidacy, meaning that he would like to lead a coalition that agrees on its candidates instead of deciding them in the primaries.

While, unlike other Peronists, Lavagna has said that he is not looking to hold talks with Fernández, the ex-minister’s affiliation with her late husband Néstor Kirchner could appeal to some of his former voters, while his levelheaded economic brand could also attract disenchanted Macri voters.

Lavagna could even sway some Cambiemos-affiliated Radical Civic Union (UCR) lawmakers ready to break from Macri’s IMF-backed austerity platform. Strife among UCR politicians has caused the Cambiemos coalition to show signs of fracture in politically strategic provinces like Córdoba.

Crucially, Lavagna’s “national unity” platform hopes to garner sufficient support to avoid a dis-jointed primary that splits Peronism into ideologically diverse camps. His hope is that a unified Peronist front that also takes a few non-Peronists on board could avoid a splintered electoral landscape that would allow Macri and Fernández to take the lead.

The downside? At 77, Lavagna doesn’t exactly inspire the same kind of political fervor that Fernández or Macri are able to rally. He arguably needs to unite both non-Kirchnerite Peronists and a number of small parties such as the socialists behind him in order to be competitive against them in the first round of voting.

But non-Kirchnerite Peronism is broad, and it will take continued negotiations to convince other contenders like Sergio Massa and Juan Manuel Urtubey — both of whom have announced their intentions to run for president in the primaries — to back Lavagna.

Massa’s electoral gymnastics

Massa, meanwhile, has a game of his own. Although, just as Lavagna did before the 2007 elec-tions, Massa parted ways with the Kirchnerite administration and ended up running against it in 2013, he now seems to be holding up talks behind the scenes with key Kirchnerite figures in a late bid to join forces against Cambiemos, a move that Lavagna has argued against.

Reports said Massa was attempting to employ a novel tactic to assure Peronism gains political ground this year, running as a “hung” gubernatorial candidate in the crucial Buenos Aires province next to both Kirchnerite and non-Kirchnerite presidential ballots, in case a full deal to unify Peronism at the national level continues to prove impossible.

Stacking the deck in this way would give the ex-mayor of Tigre a good shot at unseating Maria Eugenia Vidal, Buenos Aires province’s Cambiemos-affiliated incumbent governor, as voters of both Peronist candidates at the presidential level would add up to Massa’s tally in the province.

A win for Massa in the provincia , a traditionally working class stronghold that swung in favor of the Cambiemos coalition during the last electoral cycle, would deliver a major blow to Macri’s center-right coalition.

But Macri responded to this electoral trick with another one of his own, banning candidates from running on multiple tickets through a presidential decree. Peronism has promised to go to courts to appeal Macri’s last-minute change in rules, so the jury is still out on whether Massa’s move is legal or not.

If it’s not, Massa could be back to square one, needing to overcome his negative image in order to become a serious contender, be it nationally or in the province. After quitting the Kirchnerite government and lending some support to Macri and Vidal at the beginning of their terms, his new turn closer to Kirchnerism could reinforce the belief that he is a mere political opportunist.

It is still too early to know exactly what we can expect to materialize out of the Peronist camp this election season, as much still depends on whether Fernández will run or step down . But one thing is for certain: to unseat Macri they will need to start making up ground quickly, as (with the exception of the former President) they still lag in first-round polls, are struggling to craft a coherent electoral strategy and are only now starting to push a message that could appeal to a broad public to convince them that they have the sound, level-headed policy strategies that can put the economy back on track.

Scott Squires

Scott Squires a journalist for Reuters in Buenos Aires. He holds a dual-Master's Degree in Global Policy Studies and Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.