By Nicolás Misculin
BUENOSAIRES (Reuters) – Argentina’s election fever is starting to mount.
The country will go to the polls for primary elections on Aug. 11 ahead of the national ballot in October, seen as a referendum on the austerity politics of center-right incumbent President Mauricio Macri amid a tight economic malaise.
The primary covers candidates for president, some provincial governors and national legislators.
The two main presidential candidates – strait-laced conservative Macri and center-left rival Alberto Fernandez – are seen in a tight race to the finish. Fernandez, the moderate Peronist challenger, is expected to come out ahead in the more symbolic primaries.
Argentine voters will choose among 10 presidential candidates, though the main political parties have all already established their runners, making the primaries, known as the PASO, more of a giant poll on how political rivals are faring.
“It’s going to be a rehearsal of the real action, giving key data for the campaigns, for citizens and investors,” said Buenos Aires-based political analyst Sergio Berensztein.
“We’re going to get a lot of insights about voting behavior for the election. Particularly for markets it’s important. If it’s close, there’ll be rally, sovereign bonds etc. If Fernandez wins by a good margin, we might have a sell-off.”
The primaries foreshadow the main general election on Oct. 27 to choose a president, along with senators and deputies who make up the country’s two chambers of Congress. Key positions in Buenos Aires city and province are also on the table.
In order to win the presidency in the first round, a candidate needs at least 45% of the vote or 40% and a difference of 10 percentage points over the second place runner. If there’s no clear winner, voters will return for a run-off on Nov. 24.
Pollsters are split about who would win a head-to-head between Macri and Fernandez. Fernandez with his running mate, ex-President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is tapping into discontent over the economy in the recession-hit country.
So, who are the main players and what do they stand for?
MAURICIOMACRI, PRESIDENT – The son of one of the most powerful businessmen in Argentina, Macri took the presidency in 2015 with a center-right alliance that said it would shake up the political status quo and right the economy by creating more transparency and opening the country to international markets.
Despite his market-friendly credentials, his popularity with voters has been hit hard, however, by an economic crisis that has seen the peso plunge and annual inflation at above 50%.
MIGUELANGELPICHETTO, VICEPRESIDENT – Pichetto is a long-standing Peronist, who appeared to be in the opposition camp until being confirmed as Macri’s No. 2. The senator should help Macri expand his electoral alliance and marks a strategic shift towards the middle-ground for the president to help take on the rival Fernandez-Fernandez ticket.
MARIAEUGENIAVIDAL, BUENOSAIRESGOVERNOR – Vidal, often seen by Macri’s side on the campaign trail, is a key figure in the election race. One of the most popular politicians with voters, there was talk earlier in the year that the coalition could turn to her as a presidential candidate.
ALBERTOFERNANDEZ, PRESIDENT – A savvy political operator and the former chief of staff for former Presidents Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernadez de Kirchner, Fernandez emerged from the shadows to become the unexpected main challenger to Macri in May.
A university law professor and a moderate with the country’s nebulous Peronist political flank, Fernandez is known as a consensus builder who should temper the more divisive style of his higher-profile running mate, ex-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
CRISTINAFERNANDEZ DE KIRCHNER, VICEPRESIDENT – The main surprise the elections have thrown up so far is that Fernandez de Kirchner, who ran the country from 2007-2015, is not at the top of the ticket to take on Macri.
The sitting senator, who is loved and despised by voters in near equal measure, is facing court cases linked to allegations of corruption, which she strongly denies. The ex-leader has an ardent core following and commands rock-star crowds at events, including on her current book tour.
However, many in the country – especially from the more affluent middle class – dislike her brand of militant populism and worry that she would have an oversized influence on policy behind the scenes. As president, she rolled out heavy subsidies, higher taxes on farm exports and currency controls.
AXELKICILLOF, BUENOSAIRESGOVERNOR – The former economy minister under Fernández de Kirchner, Kicillof has a past as a student militant. A professor and researcher of the theories of John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx, he promoted the nationalization of the Argentine oil company YPF in 2012.
ROBERTOLAVAGNA, PRESIDENT – Lavagna is an economist and was economy minister under Néstor Kirchner, the late husband and predecessor of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. His campaign had looked to capture the votes of those unhappy with Macri and Fernández, but polls show that the “crack” – as the Argentines call the strong polarization between the two main parties – has hit his chances.
JUANMANUELURTUBEY, VICEPRESIDENT – The governor of northern Salta, who himself had nurtured ambitions to run for the top job, is a centrist Peronist who had advocated for a more moderate “non-Kirchnerist” opposition to defeat Macri.
EDUARDOBUCCA, BUENOSAIRESGOVERNOR – A doctor and current national deputy, Bucca will fight in the most populous district of the country but with only a slim outside chance of winning, according to the consensus amongst pollsters.
(Reporting by Nicolas Misculin; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Cynthia Osterman)