Down, but not out: Two Argentine political veterans seek to thwart upstart firebrand

Down, but not out: Two Argentine political veterans seek to thwart upstart firebrand

18 Oct    AP, Finance News, PMN Business

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Economy Minister Sergio Massa and former Security Minister Patricia Bullrich adapted shrewdly over their combined seven decades in Argentine politics. It remains to be seen whether experience is an asset or a liability in what has already been an atypical presidential race.

Javier Milei, the mop-topped freshman lawmaker who leads most polls ahead of Sunday’s vote, has railed against what he calls the political caste. He points to Massa and Bullrich as embodiments of an entrenched establishment and garnered the most votes in August primaries, sending shockwaves through the South American nation.

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Massa and Bullrich convey themselves as safer bets to govern the crisis-engulfed country than the firebrand upstart who pledges to abolish the Central Bank, slash public spending and dollarize the economy. Most polls show Massa in second place and Bullrich third.

Polls have been notoriously unreliable, however. A few show Massa leading the first round and at least two show Bullrich ahead of him. Should Milei fail to secure outright victory on Oct. 22, the top two candidates will go to a November runoff.

THE MINISTER WITH BAGGAGE

Massa, 51, has aspired to the nation’s top job for years, most recently in a 2015 campaign. Raised in a middle-class home in a Buenos Aires suburb, he became a lawyer, quickly reached the upper echelons of politics and has remained for more than two decades.

He promises to increase the purchasing power of salaries and compares himself to right-wing opponents who he says will scrap workers’ rights. His time as Economy Minister saw inflation and poverty soar and the currency tank.

“Massa as a candidate carries the burden of being a minister,” said Martin Kalos, an economist who runs Buenos Aires-based consultancy Epyca.

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Massa says he inherited an already-bad situation exacerbated by a devastating drought that decimated the country’s exports. What’s important, he says, was his willingness to leave his comparatively cozy position as leader of Congress’ lower house to take the thankless job of Economy Minister.

“I’m not one of those who gets scared in the face of a challenge,” Massa said at a political rally in May. “Many of those who now proudly talk about candidacies on television were hiding under the bed.”

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In the pragmatism that buoyed his career in recent years observers see him as a shape-shifter. The word voters most identify with Massa is “pancake,” slang for a flip-flopper, according to a recent poll by Giacobbe & Asociados.

In 2008, Massa was plucked from his position as mayor of Buenos Aires suburb Tigre to become Cabinet Chief of then-President Cristina Fernandez, who was locked in a fierce battle with the powerful farming sector.

He left Fernandez’s government less than a year later and founded a center-right party that was in opposition to his former boss, pushed for more business-friendly policies and accused Fernandez of corruption.

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Massa’s newfound party emerged as the big winner of 2013 midterm elections and many thought he would be a shoo-in for the presidency in 2015, but he came in third place. He later left old rancor aside and joined a coalition with Fernandez as running mate on a ticket led by current President Alberto Fernandez and after their victory, Massa took on an increasingly starring role in their administration.

THE ACTIVIST TURNED CRIMEFIGHTER

Bullrich’s views have likewise shifted throughout her four-decade career. As a young political activist, she denies being part of leftist guerilla groups that undertook violence as a means for social change even though many say she was.

“In the 70s, many of us believed that the way to change the world was through violence. And it was a mistake,” Bullrich said in a recent interview with La Nacion newspaper.

Today, she is from the main center-right opposition coalition and is known for her staunch defense of law enforcement.

Bullrich, 67, went into exile when Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship took hold in 1976 and remained a Peronist, the nebulous Argentine political movement named after former President Juan Domingo Peron, which has both left- and right-wing factions but broadly believes in social justice and workers’ rights. She drifted away and in 1999 joined a centrist coalition, serving the administration in power during Argentina’s spectacular economic collapse in 2001, when the country was engulfed by political crisis amid a debt default, massive unemployment, soaring poverty and a plunge in the value of the local currency.

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Bullrich lurched further rightward by founding her own party that espoused business-friendly views. After joining the government of center-right President Mauricio Macri in 2015, she gained notoriety — and high approval ratings — as Security Minister by giving police more power.

Analysts earlier this year had considered whomever the opposition coalition selected as its candidate to be a virtual lock for presidency: inflation was surging, violent crime was worsening and government approval ratings were plunging. Then came Milei, and Bullrich has been battling for right-wing support since.

She argues her coalition can bring about the change so many struggling Argentines yearn for, whereas Milei lacks support from governors and experience negotiating legislation.

While backers see her as courageous, detractors say she is ill-prepared to shore up an economy in disarray. Bullrich says that, if elected, the peso and the dollar will coexist while the Central Bank will gain independence. She has also vowed to give more power to law enforcement to combat crime and drug trafficking.

“With me, those who do wrong will pay,” Bullrich said in the last presidential debate.

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Associated Press writer Debora Rey contributed to this report.

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