Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez cheers at supporters at the Casa Rosada government palace during a signing ceremony in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Jan. 30, 2015. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

All is not well in Argentina. The economy is stagnant, the fiscal deficit unsustainable and growing, foreign and domestic investment meager, inflation running at 30 percent, drug-related violence rising and the country remains an outcast in the international financial community.

In the midst of this, on Aug. 9, Argentina started the nation’s three-step process of choosing its next president. Because of term limits, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will be stepping down on Dec. 10. She has been in office since 2007 after taking the reins from her husband, Néstor Kirchner, who was in office from 2003 to 2007, and then passed away in 2010. Under the Kirchners, Argentine foreign and domestic policy shifted to the left, with a significant deterioration in diplomatic relations with the United States and a dramatic increase in the government’s role in the Argentine economy.

The Aug. 9 primaries weren’t like U.S. primaries. Everyone already knew the names of the nominees for the country’s three leading national alliances of political parties. Rather, the Argentine primaries matter because they are the best way to know the level of popular support for the leading presidential candidates. Trust in published opinion surveys in Argentina is low, both because some perceive political motivations behind their publication and because they have a less than stellar record in predicting recent elections.

What’s more, Argentina’s primaries are mandatory (for parties/alliances), compulsory (for voters 18-69), national (one date in all provinces), internally uncompetitive and held merely 11 weeks before the general election—making them a good gauge of national sentiment.

Argentina’s federal elections explained: process, parties, players

The 2015 Argentine federal election process will have either two or three stages. First were the primaries on Aug. 9. Party alliances must have won at least 1.5 percent of the votes cast in this election to qualify their presidential candidate for the next ballot round.

Next come presidential and congressional elections on Oct. 25. If necessary, the top two candidates will have a runoff on Nov. 22. That will become necessary if no presidential candidate receives more than 45 percent of the valid vote–or if no candidate receives at least 40 percent but has a margin of victory that’s more than 10 percent above that of the second-place candidate.

Eleven political alliances participated in the Aug. 9 primary. Three had contested primaries, but only in one was there doubt about the victor in a single primary (that of the small Left Front). In Fernández de Kirchner’s Front for Victory (FPV) alliance, Daniel Scioli, governor of the province of Buenos Aires, was the sole candidate. In the centrist We Can Change alliance, the marquee candidate was City of Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri. In United for a New Alternative (UNA), the headliner was Sergio Massa, a national deputy from Buenos Aires province.

Both Scioli and Massa belong to the country’s large and robust Peronist movement, which originated during the first presidency of Juan Domingo Perón (1946-55) and the brief but indelible political and social activism of his spouse, Evita Perón. Peronists occupy positions across the ideological spectrum from the center-left to the center-right, but share a common history linked to Perón and Evita, a support base anchored in the working class and poor, and a goal of obtaining and then maintaining political power by almost any means necessary. Scioli is a leading figure in the movement’s pro-Kirchner wing and Massa in its anti-Kirchner wing, with Scioli supportive and Massa critical of the current policies of President Fernández de Kirchner.

Although We Can Change has some Peronist members, it primarily includes most of the non-Peronist opposition political forces in the country, including the Radical Civic Union (UCR), the country’s traditional counter-weight to Peronism, and Macri’s Federal Proposal (PRO).

What did we learn from the primary?

In the primary, the FPV finished first with 38.4 percent of the valid vote (less than expected), all won by Scioli.

We Can Change placed second at 30.1 percent, with Macri contributing a lion’s share (24.3 percent) followed by candidates from two of the other alliance members: Ernesto Sanz of the UCR (3.5 percent) and Elisa Carrió of the Civic Coalition (2.3 percent).

Rounding out the big three was UNA, which garnered a greater share than expected, 20.6 percent. Massa (14.2 percent) easily defeated Córdoba governor Jose Manuel de la Sota (6.4 percent).

Three other alliances crossed the 1.5 percent minimum threshold required to earn a place for their candidate on the October ballot: Margarita Stolbizer (Progressives), Nicolás del Caño (Left Front), Adolfo Rodríguez Saá (Federal Commitment).

In all, the mainstream opposition candidates garnered a combined 56.3 percent of the vote to Scioli’s 38.4 percent. Underscoring Peronism’s broad electoral appeal, across four separate alliances the five candidates who identify as Peronists (Scioli, Massa, De la Sota, Rodríguez Saá, Victor De Gennaro) garnered a combined total of 61.6 percent of the vote.


The results of the 2015 Argentine presidential primary election.
(Data: Dirección Nacional Electoral, Argentina; Table: Mark P. Jones)

What is the frontrunner doing to win it all in the next round?

Scioli’s most realistic hope of avoiding a runoff in October is to win a share of the vote that is at least 40 percent and is 10 percent more than that obtained by the first runner-up. On Aug. 9, he achieved neither of these goals.

And yet Scioli still has a reasonable chance of a first round victory on Oct. 25, for two reasons. First, Scioli is expected to keep virtually all of his primary vote, and therefore needs a relatively modest boost to pass the 40 percent barrier and achieve a 10 percent gap between himself and the second place candidate. One viable option for getting there is to seek high-profile agreements with a handful of leading politicians. Another is for his delegates to craft thousands of minor informal agreements with UNA-aligned Peronists throughout the country.

Most observers believe Scioli will pursue two high-profile agreements. The first is with De la Sota’s successor in Córdoba, governor-elect Juan Schiaretti. That would give Scioli a shot at taking votes away from UNA and its general election candidate, Massa, since nearly half De la Sota’s votes in the UNA primary came from the province of Córdoba. Córdoba is in rough economic shape. If Schiaretti concludes Massa does not have a realistic chance of making the runoff, he may strike a deal with Scioli, trading his endorsement and get-out-the-vote help from the state’s Peronist political machine in exchange for a pledge of financial aid for the province.

The other possible high-profile deal would be between Scioli and Rodríguez Saá, who might drop out and back Scioli in exchange for financial support for the province of San Luis. Rodríguez Saá and his brother have ruled San Luis in a quasi-feudal manner since Argentina’s return to democracy in 1983.

But below the national radar, Scioli’s operatives will be pursuing a myriad of other potential deals. Many Peronists value government posts and access to state and private resources and power above ideology, policy and personal ties. Scioli’s people will approach Massa’s backers, promising future government positions, contracts and resources in exchange for defection and support in October. These Peronists strongly prefer Massa to Scioli. But if by mid- to late-September they believe Massa will not be able to come within striking distance of Macri for a spot in the runoff, some are likely to switch their fealty to Scioli.

Second, while the distance between the FPV and We Can Change was less than 10 percent, the vote gap between Scioli and Macri (14.1 percent) was greater than 10 percent. In October only Macri will be on the ballot, not Sanz and Carrió. Research by Ernesto Calvo and Andrés Malamud on Argentine provincial elections would lead us to expect not all primary votes cast for Sanz (in particular) and Carrió to automatically end up in Macri’s column in October.

All that assumes, however, that Massa doesn’t gain momentum. If he begins to look like Scioli’s most likely rival in a runoff, Scioli would reap far fewer agreements and defections. And if We Can Change and UNA form an alliance—pulling together an accord on core public policies and inter-party consultation and support if either Macri or Massa wins—Scioli might also be in trouble. Such an agreement would attenuate, though not fully eliminate, shifts in UNA support to Scioli while also easing voters’ concerns that Macri, if elected, would be unable to govern due to the limited number of seats We Can Change will have in the Argentine Congress (less than a third in both houses), the small number of provinces (less than a quarter) where it will hold the governorship, and its limited ties with Argentina’s powerful Peronist union leaders.

How will the result affect Argentina?

In short, the primary told us what we already know: Daniel Scioli is the front-runner in the race to become the next president of Argentina. But at the same time, it reminds us that Scioli still has a lot of work ahead if he is to avoid a November runoff. That’s important for his chances. In a November runoff, voters who backed opposition candidates on Aug. 9 would outnumber those who cast a ballot for Scioli—and they wouldn’t be dividing their support among several candidates.

Among the three candidates, Scioli proposes the most continuity with and least change from the policies of President Fernández de Kirchner and Macri the least continuity and most change, with Massa occupying an intermediate position between the two. As a result, the outcome of this fall’s (spring in Argentina) electoral process will have a profound impact on the extent to which Argentina adopts more market-friendly policies and endeavors to foster better relations with the United States during the remainder of the decade.

Mark P. Jones is the Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies and the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s Political Science Fellow at Rice University.