Continuity not change for Argentina's voters on election day

President Kirchner has presided over a slowing economy and a rocky relationship with foreign creditors. But her party's candidate for president is in the lead ahead of Sunday's poll. 

Natacha Pisarenko/AP
Buenos Aires' Governor and ruling party presidential candidate Daniel Scioli, right, and his wife Karina Rabolini, left, gesture to supporters during Scioli's closing campaign rally in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015. President Cristina Fernandez hand-picked successor Scioli is leading in the polls for Sunday's presidential elections.

In 2001, Enrique Guastavino's business renting pedal boats on a lake here was at a breaking point. "I didn't have enough money to pay my staff," he says. Today, however, the business is thriving and Mr. Guastavino says the government is to thank.

In recent years, President  Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has faced scandals, street protests, and apocalyptic news coverage, and many observers abroad believed her party was on its way out. Mrs. Kirchner has presided over economic tumult, including a currency devaluation last year. Import restrictions have hindered domestic manufacturers and global prices of soy, Argentina's biggest export, have crashed. Economic growth has slowed sharply since 2011.

Nevertheless, Kirchner's leftist Front for Victory party seems well positioned to win a fourth consecutive term in elections on Sunday. This resilience reflects strong approval in several sectors of how the party has governed Argentina over the past 12 years. Analysts say the “main street” economy appears healthy – and voters like Guastavino are content. Unemployment, for instance, is around 7 percent and policymakers have hiked wages for influential trade union workers, even as inflation nears 28 percent. This is far from the chaos of 2001-2002, when economic turbulence plunged millions into poverty, and hyperinflation a decade earlier.

"I can't complain about her government," says Angélica Laplume, a security guard, noting the improvements under Kirchner. "There's work for who wants it, the restaurants are full, people go on vacation."

'Sharp change'?

Kirchner cannot run for a third consecutive term in Sunday's elections, so the Front for Victory's candidate is Daniel Scioli, a state governor. Polls give him a big lead over his center-right rival, Mauricio Macri, of the Cambiemos or "Let's change" alliance. But it is unclear whether Mr. Scioli will win enough votes to avoid a run-off next month.

Scioli, a former powerboat racer, is promising to take the reins of Kirchner's broader political project. This includes her focus on reducing the equality gap, which she has tackled in part by expanding social benefits, a cornerstone policy that is supported by many Argentines.

Sixty-two percent of Argentines want some form of continuity, according to research released by Management and Fit, a local polling firm. This has forced Mr. Macri to modify his campaign in order to appeal to these voters. He’s promised to keep social benefits, like child welfare, and to safeguard nationalized companies. As a result, the difference between Kirchner’s party and its competitors is much less noticeable.

"At the beginning of the campaign the talk was about sharp change, but it wasn't resonating much and Macri shifted towards Scioli," says Louisa Richey, a senior risk analyst at the Cefeidas Group in Buenos Aires.

Continuity with change

Still, there are many who prefer change. They have grown weary, for instance, of Kirchner's imperious style and argue that her protectionist economic policies and nationalist rhetoric have isolated Argentina from the world.

In turn, Mr Scioli has also reached out to these voters, offering — as he did on a popular TV show this week — to implement "continuity with change."

"We can't say that the mandate is either change or continuity," says Raúl G. Aragón, a pollster and political commentator here. "It's not a dichotomy; it's more nuanced and Scioli is the best representative of it."

On the streets of Buenos Aires, this nuance was reflected among voters. "It would be a good change," says Luis Addesi, who runs a convenience store, of Scioli’s candidacy. "We would have continuity but he's going to bring in his own politics, too." 

Changes would include a more consensual style of leadership, according to Scioli's advisers, and moves to correct economic distortions, like the inflation rate, a high budget deficit, and low reserves of hard currency. These would require moves to which Kirchner has previously been averse, like negotiating with hedge funds in New York and easing electricity and gas subsidies, economists say.

Still, there are many Argentines that believe change isn't possible under Kirchner’s party, which is part of a larger political movement that has dominated Argentina for decades.

“They seem very corrupt," says Lidya Bruzzese, a housewife who is ditching Front for Victory to vote for Macri. "And also very authoritarian. I don’t see the progress."

In the gritty conurbation that encloses Buenos Aires where Kirchner's party is strong, Macri is gaining ground. "I'm tired of 30 years of the same; I want something else," says Reinaldo Capparelli, the owner of a plant store.

But even staunch supporters of Macri pointed to the value of preserving some of Kirchner's policies. "Macri has to keep the social benefits," says Christian Afalo, a blacksmith. "If he doesn't, the whole world could fall in on him."

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