By Lucila Sigal
BUENOSAIRES – Argentines will go to the polls on Sunday in a primary election that is a litmus test for the November legislative midterms, with the vote marked by political apathy, concerns about the economy and the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.
Pre-election polls show the center-left Peronist government in some trouble, with its strong position in the two houses of Congress under threat from the conservative opposition which has looked to play up mistakes in the handling of the health crisis.
Argentines will vote in the primaries on Sunday in what will be the biggest referendum yet on the government of Alberto Fernandez, who has juggled the pandemic with $100 billion-plus debt talks and reviving an economy in recession since 2018.
But many voters are disillusioned with candidates from all sides in the grains producing South American nation.
“I could go into the dark room and go ‘eeny, meeny, miny, moe’ (a kids game of chance), because I think it’s all the same,” said Gonzalo Barmasch, a 22-year-old student in Buenos Aires.
“In these elections I am disinterested,” Barmasch added, saying that in previous years he would have voted against the ruling Peronist party. “But this year I even lost interest in the opposition, since I do not see big changes.”
A primary election in 2019 ahead of a presidential ballot that year sunk the country’s markets when it showed business-friendly incumbent Mauricio Macri trailing far behind leftist challenger Fernandez, who went on to easily win later that year.
Markets have been buoyed recently, in part on expectations the current government may be weakened in the midterm vote.
The government was hit by a “VIP“ access scandal over COVID-19 vaccines amid a slow initial roll-out that saw the health minister step down, and photos of a party held by the President’s wife while the country was in strict lockdown.
“It’s been a complicated year with the pandemic and with a very weakened government,” Mariel Fornoni, director of consultancy and pollster Management and Fit, told Reuters.
“Six out of 10 people don’t have confidence in how the government is managing the pandemic and seven out of 10 don’t have confidence in how it is managing the economy.”
“There is a lot of apathy and anger.”
Argentines have faced economic crises for years, with rampant inflation sapping savings and salaries, rising poverty and unemployment, a stalled economy and tight capital controls.
J.P. Morgan in a note said that macroeconomic conditions – while still “dire” – had improved slightly in recent months, which could be a boost for the government. It described the average voter as being “disenchanted” and “disillusioned”.
That could hit turnout, despite the vote being mandatory, with Fornoni estimating a fall by about 15% compared to previous elections.
“None of the candidates, no campaign really convinces me, only some help me to discard them,” said Ramiro Gomez, a 21-year-old student.
For Yiya Carrillo, an 89-year-old retired literature teacher who has already received the COVID-19 vaccine, the virus is not an impediment and she plans to go to vote on Sunday – though said she wasn’t tied to a particular political party.
“Of course I’m going to vote,” she said.