Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Do Results in Neuquén Say About Argentine Politics?

Omar Gutiérrez easily won re-election this month as governor of Argentina’s Neuquén Province. // File Photo: Facebook page of Omar Gutiérrez. Omar Gutiérrez easily won re-election this month as governor of Argentina’s Neuquén Province. // File Photo: Facebook page of Omar Gutiérrez.

Omar Gutiérrez, the governor of Argentina’s oil-rich Neuquén Province, won re-election on March 10, handily defeating Ramón Rioseco, an ally of former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The Neuquén race was being followed nationally for signs of how much support Fernández’s forces might muster if she were to declare her candidacy in the upcoming presidential election to run against President Mauricio Macri. Were the results of the vote in Neuquén surprising? To what extent does the local race reflect national public sentiment ahead of the October presidential election? How likely is Fernández to run, and how much of a challenge would she represent to Macri’s re-election?

Paula Alonso, associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University: “The re-election of governor Omar Gutiérrez with almost 40 percent of the votes was unsurprising; his party, Movimiento Popular Neuquino, won all elections it contested for governorship since its foundation in 1961. All eyes were on Neuquén, home to Vaca Muerta—one the world’s largest shale deposits—because the Kirchneristas competed with their own candidate, who ultimately obtained fewer votes than anticipated (26 percent). Although Cambiemos was third (15 percent), the results were a victory for President Macri, as it meant that energy policy (over which Gutiérrez and the national government are aligned) won’t be altered. The Kirchneristas were defeated in the first test of this year’s marathon of provincial and national electoral contests, culminating in the presidential election in October. Given Neuquén’s particular political and economic situation (strong provincial party and energy reserves), it would be unwise to extrapolate the impact of these electoral results outside its borders. However, the intense focus on the election underlines the relevance of politics in the provinces where Radicals (UCR), Peronists, Kirchneristas, Pro-Cambiemos and provincial parties are making, breaking or refining alliances in their constituencies. In turn, these negotiations affect the most critical factor in the next presidential elections: the reorganization of a Peronist front to compete against Macri. The clock is ticking. All the alliances and their candidates have to register in June to compete in the open compulsory primaries in August. Nonetheless, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the only opponent with 30 percent of support, is in no hurry to publicize whether or not she will run.”

Megan Cook, lead specialist in the political and regulatory risk/strategic affairs practice at Cefeidas Group in Buenos Aires: “Although most polls had predicted a much tighter race between the top two vote-getters, the results of Neuquén’s gubernatorial election were hardly surprising. Sitting Governor Omar Gutiérrez’s party, the Movimiento Popular Neuquino (MPN), dominates local politics and has held the governorship since 1963. Gutiérrez comfortably won re-election, receiving just under 40 percent of the vote compared to Rioseco’s 25 percent, with the candidate from Macri’s Cambiemos coalition, Horacio Quiroga, trailing behind with approximately 15 percent. Gutiérrez, backed by his party and several others, actually increased his share of the vote when compared to the 2015 gubernatorial election, in which the same three candidates competed, while Quiroga’s share dropped. This was certainly not the result that Cambiemos had hoped for, especially as it performed well in Neuquén in the 2017 midterms. Despite this and former President Fernández’s explicit support for Rioseco, it would be a mistake to read the election as a strong indicator of the national mood. Candidates focused on local issues, and Gutiérrez benefited from factors including a growing local economy (unlike the national trend), ongoing public works projects and the MPN’s territorial reach. These local considerations likely played a much larger role in voters’ choice than the image of national parties or their policies. With regard to the presidential election, it remains unclear if Fernández will throw her hat into the ring. Both Macri and Fernández maintain similar approval ratings of around 30 percent that reflect their core base of support. However, there is a significant portion of voters that seems disenchanted with either option. A moderate opposition candidate may be able to gain traction among this group. There is uncertainty as to how these voters would cast a ballot in a runoff, and a moderate candidate would perhaps outperform Fernández in a second round against Macri, as she has high rejection rates. Without the certainty of an opposition candidate, predictions are imprecise but do hint that it will be a competitive and close race for the incumbent president, whomever he faces.”

Bruno Binetti, nonresident research fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue: “The Movimiento Popular Neuquino, Gutiérrez’s local political party, has won each and every gubernatorial election in Neuquén since 1962, so his re-election was hardly surprising. Neuquén is important because Vaca Muerta is located there, but it’s a province of 620,000 inhabitants in a country of 44 million, and therefore not representative of the national electorate. Forty percent of all Argentines live in the province of Buenos Aires, where former President Fernández is most popular. There is a long list of provincial elections before October, and none of them will say anything about the national vote. The only real indicator will be the mandatory presidential primaries (PASO) on Aug. 11. Even if Macri and Fernández do not face internal challenges, they still have to participate, which will show their levels of support. On that day we will also find out if moderate Peronists (former Minister Roberto Lavagna, Sergio Massa or someone else) have a chance of breaking the Macri-Fernández polarization, which right now is unlikely. Fernández will almost certainly run for president. She is a polarizing figure involved in many corruption allegations, but her image is gradually improving as the recession continues and inflation remains stubbornly high. Most polls indicate she would defeat president Macri in the first round and is running neck and neck with him in the second round. Fernández is still Macri’s preferred rival, but if the economy doesn’t bound back significantly and soon, she has a good chance of returning to power.”

Andrés Asiain, director of Centro de Estudios Económicos y Sociales Scalabrini Ortiz (CESO): “In Argentina, national and provincial politics are very particular. At the national level, politics is polarized between supporters of former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and current President Mauricio Macri. With the crisis, provoked by the economic policy agreed to with the IMF in exchange for external financing, Macri’s image is weakening, and it is likely that other figures will try to capture votes from the right and center, against Fernández de Kirchner. In the provinces, this national polarization is diluted, especially in those where provincial parties are dominating. Precisely to avoid losing votes as a result of the national polarization, many governors moved the elections up so they wouldn’t coincide with the presidential election. Such is the case with the recent vote for governor of Neuquén, one of the main oil provinces, which the Movimiento Popular Nequino has exclusively governed since 1962, except for periods at which democracy was interrupted at the hands of the military. In this context, the recent re-election of Omar Gutiérrez of the MPN as governor of Neuquén—leaving Fernández’s candidate in second place and Macri’s candidate in third—doesn’t bring anything new to either local or national politics. In this regard, it is worth noting that the MPN has maintained agreements with the national government both when it was in the hands of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and now with Macri, showing a great political versatility to maintain its provincial interests.”

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