"Anything can happen": What is Argentina voting on today? Who are the candidates?

The South American country heads to the polls on Sunday, August 13 in an 'anything can happen' scenario.

Argentina, a country that has everything to be financially successful yet somehow continues to struggle, will vote this Sunday, August 13. In the delicate, fragile balance between the joy of winning the World Cup and the anguish caused by three-digit annual inflation, the open, simultaneous and mandatory primary elections (PASO), in which citizens will choose which presidential candidates will compete in the general elections in October, have arrived. In the United States, it would be comparable to Democrats and Republicans choosing their candidates simultaneously: on the same day in all 50 states.

Argentina has a population of 46 million and is the eighth-largest country in the world geographically. In addition to exporting high-quality sportsmen and women, it stands out for exporting food and raw materials, such as soybeans, corn, wheat, sunflower, barley, meat and dairy products. It also has substantial natural resources (zinc, iron, copper and uranium), as well as oil and natural gas deposits.

However, the country has been practically stagnant since the return to democracy in 1983, interspersing brief moments of tranquility with economic crises and hyperinflation. Argentina currently has a 122% year-on-year inflation rate (from July 2022 to July 2023), together with a sharp drop in purchasing power, 148 taxes that threaten the residents' pocketbooks, countless regulations and a level of insecurity that has been the protagonist during the last days of the campaign.

A recent survey by the Universidad de San Andrés asked Argentines about their biggest concerns when it comes to voting. In this order, inflation (59%), crime (36%) and corruption (35%) were the issues on most voter's minds.

Alberto Fernández, the current president, decided not to seek a second term. (Wikimedia Commons).

What is the voting process like in Argentina?

The South American country has the following electoral system: first come the aforementioned PASO elections, where candidates must gain 1.5% of the vote to advance to the general elections (October 22). In the general elections, there are two ways to win in the first round, obtaining more than 45% of the votes or reaching 40% and having a difference of more than ten percentage points with the immediate pursuer. In either of these two scenarios, whoever leads becomes the president-elect.

Without a clear winner, indeed the most likely scenario, the two most-voted candidates face off in a runoff election scheduled for November 19.

The main candidates

Although the winds of change are blowing strongly throughout the country, the charisma of the Peronist candidate and the barrage of a "get rid of 'em all" mentality add a lot of uncertainty to the matter. Currently, the president is Alberto Fernandez (Peronist), who is distanced from his vice-president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the former president who actually holds the power, as was evidenced when she chose him to join her in the previous elections.

In April, Fernandez decided not to seek a second term, thus opening up an interesting internal debate within the party, which had not held a primary for more than 30 years. The figure of Sergio Massa, the Minister of Economy, quickly emerged as the best candidate that Peronism could present to try to remain in power.

The main opposition party is Juntos por el Cambio (Together for Change), and all eyes will be on them on Sunday. Patricia Bullrich and Horacio Rodríguez Larreta will face each other at the polls to see who gets the nomination. Bullrich is a former security minister and is a hardliner of the party, while Larreta is the moderate mayor of the City of Buenos Aires. Public discussion has led to the separation of these two factions of the party into hawks (more hard-line) and doves (more moderate).

Coming out of left field is the last competitive candidate in these elections: Libertarian economist Javier Milei, who claims to be able to win the elections if he can make it to the second round of elections.

Sergio Massa

The current Minister of Economy is the best electoral card the government could play for these elections. Very charismatic and, for some people, a man who has a more open view of the market than their Peronist colleagues, he was chief of staff during part of Cristina Kirchner's first government, mayor of the city of Tigre in the province of Buenos Aires, national deputy and president of the Chamber of Deputies until July 2022, when the president summoned him to try to set the country's economy on course.

Married to Malena Galmarini, he will seek to appeal to the Kirchnerist, Peronist and moderate votes. He aims to continue to serve the successful electoral base of the party that has governed Argentina for 29 of the last 40 years under Carlos Saúl Menem, Eduardo Duhalde, Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Kirchner.

As for his proposals, a seemingly tricky point to identify amongst all the leading candidates, he aims to balance the state budget, reach a trade surplus, and promises "development with inclusion," which goes hand in hand with "more income distribution, more public education and more investment in universities." He heads the Unión por la Patria (Union for the Homeland) party, the name chosen by Peronism to compete in 2023, and turns out to be a more market-friendly Peronist, in line with what Argentines are demanding in these elections.

The leading critics of the ruling party's candidate claim that he speaks as if he were not currently in government and point out his recent changes of position. Massa angrily left Kirchner's government, created a separate party to defeat them in the 2013 midterm elections, was a candidate for president in 2015, and stated, "I am going to sweep away the ñoquis of La Cámpora who want to leave us as parasites in the state." This meant he intended to fire all Kirchnerist militants who "worked" in the government, earning a wage without being held to any service standards. In addition, he assured that he would never again join Kirchnerism, a promise he could not keep. He returned to support Kirchner and Fernandez in the 2019 presidential elections, aiming to defeat then-President Mauricio Macri.

Patricia Bullrich

Bullrich is, according to the polls, the favorite to win in the internal elections of Juntos por el Cambio. Of leftist origins, she completed her ideological conversion in the 2000s, when she was a minister in the Fernando de la Rúa government, national deputy and then Minister of Security of former President Macri.

She represents the most hard-line wing of the party; however, her rhetoric is one of drastic change. She claims to be the candidate of "order," capable of defeating drug trafficking and unraveling the corporate capitalism that afflicts the country. She also promises to reduce the number of ministries and therefore public spending, make the labor market more flexible and end exchange restrictions to encourage foreign investment.

Her principal campaign promise is to win the fight against insecurity, for which she promises to lower the age of criminal responsibility, to create a special criminal intelligence police for the most dangerous gangs and to put an end to picketing and constant street blockades. "With me it's over," she has assured several times.

Horacio Rodríguez Larreta

The other candidate of Juntos por el Cambio is running his campaign closer to the center to attract the moderate vote. Economist and current mayor of the City of Buenos Aires, he advocates a dialogue and consensus rhetoric, which places him much more in the center than his internal primary rival.

A fan of Racing Club de Avellaneda, he promises to modernize the country in many aspects, mainly in the labor and educational fields, by facilitating the creation of businesses, creating a new penal code to combat organized crime, ensuring that children have 190 school days a year and increasing police presence throughout the country.

To prevail in the internal election against Bullrich, he shows himself as the candidate capable of closing the "grieta [crack]," a term used locally to describe the ideological divide between Peronists and non-Peronists, something he intends to do by working closely and dialoguing with other political parties.

"This is not for a messianic leader, for one of those charismatic speakers, everyone knows me, I am not a good public speaker (...) We are going to move this country forward as a team", he assured during the campaign, in a paragraph that describes his intentions well.

Some analysts argue that the main difference between Larreta and Bullrich is not necessarily ideological but one of speed. Larreta understands that Argentina needs profound changes but prefers to make them gradually and in consensus with other political spaces, while Bullrich would opt for a 180-degree change, taking advantage of the possible legislative majority that Juntos por el Cambio would obtain in the elections.

Javier Milei

He's practically a rock star. His characteristic mane has led him to be nicknamed El León (The Lion), and his personality combines a mathematical economist who specialized in growth and a former soccer goalkeeper who played youth football at the Chacarita club. Virtually unknown five years ago, his media appearances went viral first for the enthusiasm with which he defended his ideas and then for those same ideas, summarized in economic freedom, reduction of public spending and respect for individual rights.

With that burst of national attention, he won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies in 2021 for the party he created, La Libertad Avanza(Liberty Advances). He will run for the same party in the presidential primaries this Sunday.

Perhaps the candidate with the most aggressive rhetoric, he claims that his rivals are part of a "political caste" that has been destroying Argentina for several years. Although ideologically anarcho-capitalist, he professes libertarianism and popularized it throughout the country, which attracted attention given the country's statist tradition.

He is currently a national deputy, and his main proposals include a significant reduction in the number of ministries, a monetary reform to drastically reduce inflation, privatization of loss-making public companies and opening the economy to the world. He calls for re-embracing the values of Juan Bautista Alberdi in order for Argentina to once again become a competitive global power after 35 years.

Milei would be gathering the famous "voto bronca," made up of all those who feel frustrated by traditional politicians. Jair Bolsonaro, former president of Brazil, has already sent him his support from abroad.

What do the polls say?

Hours before the election, the only certainty pollsters had was that Juntos por el Cambio, that is, the sum of the votes of Larreta and Bullrich, would be the most voted political bloc. This leaves them in a very good position for the general elections, given that the bandwagon effect on public opinion dictates that people like to vote for whoever has the best chance of winning. Therefore, should this materialize, the party would add votes in the general elections.

Proyección, the poll that came closest to predicting the outcome of the 2019 presidential elections, predicted 34.7% for Juntos por el Cambio, with the conservative Bullrich (20.6%) winning the primary against the moderate Larreta (14.1%).

Next would be Unión por la Patria, which would reach 32.8 %, a reassuring figure for Peronism given that historically it has a strong presence in elections. Massa would obtain 30.3% within the party and Juan Grabois (social leader) 2.5%.

Projection Survey, an infographic from the newspaper La Nación.

Third place would go to Javier Milei and La Libertad Avanza, who would take 18.8% of the votes, a significant amount that would be decisive in an eventual second round between Bullrich and Massa.

For Management and Fit, a political consulting company, the scenario would be almost identical, although the one who would advance as the opposition candidate would be the mayor of Buenos Aires, Larreta. In his electoral showing, the Racing Club de Avellaneda fan would beat his rival by two percentage points.

Despite these various projections, the scenario is one of total uncertainty. People on the street cling to the idea that "anything can happen" since polls in Argentina do not always hit the mark. A scenario in which Juntos por el Cambio wins by a landslide is not ruled out, as is one in which Unión por la Patria takes first place.

In addition, recent events related to insecurity could trigger a last-minute rise in La Libertad Avanza. In the week before the elections, an 11-year-old girl was murdered while walking to school, and a doctor suffered the same fate when two criminals stole his car. These two episodes could well boost the figures of Milei and Bullrich, who stand out from the rest for their strong anti-crime rhetoric.

For the time being, all candidates with more than 1.5% will move on to the general elections in October, where it remains to be seen whether anyone emerges as president-elect or whether a runoff election will be necessary as in 2015.