(Baker Institute, 2.Apr.2019) — On April 7 Argentina will hold its second provincial election of the 2019 election season in the province of Río Negro. With less than a week to go, the gubernatorial race is too close to call, with three candidates having a plausible chance of victory. The stakes of this election are very high for Argentine President Mauricio Macri, since a victory by the gubernatorial candidate closely aligned with former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner would be interpreted as a strong public rebuke of the Macri Administration at a very delicate time for the president, who is up for re-election in October.
The Río Negro election campaign was shaken up by a March 22 Argentine Supreme Court ruling that barred Governor Alberto Weretilneck of the provincial Together We Are Río Negro (JSRN) party from running for re-election due to the province’s two consecutive election limit. The court agreed with Wertilneck’s opponents who argued that he already has been elected twice, once in 2011 as the lieutenant governor candidate on a ticket with Carlos Soría who Weretilneck succeeded as governor in January 2012 after Soría was murdered by his wife less than a month after assuming office, and a second time in 2015.
Prior to the court ruling, Weretilneck was favored to win re-election, enjoying strong popular support in the province as well as the tacit support of President Macri who viewed Weretilneck as a reliable ally and the gubernatorial candidate best positioned to defeat General Roca Mayor Martín Soria (Carlos Soria’s son). A victory by Soria, a staunch ally of former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is running under the Front for Victory (FPV) label, would represent a public relations blow for the Macri Administration early in the election season at a time when it is already wrestling with a wide range of economic and social problems ranging from a currency that has fallen by more than 100% against the dollar over the past year, a 12 month inflation rate over 50%, and one in three Argentines now living in poverty.
From the perspective of the energy industry, a Soria victory would lead to an unwelcome high level of friction with the Macri Administration during the 2019-23 period (in the event Macri is re-elected). And, it would install a provincial administration in Río Negro with a more hostile attitude toward international oil companies (IOCs) and many private sector Argentine energy companies than exists today under Weretilneck or would exist under an administration run by either of Soria’s principal rivals.
Following the Supreme Court ruling, Weretilneck chose Arabella Carreras to replace him as the JSRN gubernatorial candidate. Carreras is a low-profile Weretilneck loyalist who served as the province’s Minister of Tourism and was originally Weretilneck’s candidate for lieutenant governor. If she is victorious, Weretilneck is expected to at least initially exercise a considerable amount of influence from behind the scenes over provincial government politics and policy. The third viable gubernatorial candidate in the race is national deputy Lorena Matzen, a member of Macri’s Let’s Change alliance’s junior partner, the Radical Civic Union (UCR).
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In addition to these three viable candidates, there are four other gubernatorial candidates with absolutely no prospect of victory. Three of these candidates represent small far-left political parties or alliances: Norma Dardik (Left Workers Front), Aurelio Vázquez (Movement Toward Socialism), and Jorge Sánchez (Socialist Workers Movement). The fourth candidate, Rubén Alí Yauhar, represents a minor Peronist splinter party (Union and Liberty Party).
With no runoff required, whichever gubernatorial candidate wins the most votes on April 7 will be sworn into office in December for a four-year term. At the present time, Soria (FPV) and Carreras (JSRN) are within striking distance of each other, with Matzen (Let’s Change) trailing in third place.
Twenty-four of the provincial legislators are elected from eight three-member districts using proportional representation while 22 are elected from a province-wide district using proportional representation. With three viable gubernatorial candidates whose legislative lists are expected to perform well, it is very likely that whoever is elected governor will assume office without a majority in the provincial legislature. If the victor is either Carreras or Matzen, an informal or formal legislative coalition could be formed without too much difficulty to support the governor’s policy agenda, but if Soria is elected the potential for legislative gridlock is notably higher.
As a mid-tier provincial petroleum and gas producer, Río Negro’s gubernatorial elections lack the high stakes of the March 10 gubernatorial election in neighboring Neuquén, home of the Vaca Muerta shale deposit. However, the election is equally salient for oil and natural gas development in Río Negro and also very important for the Macri Administration since the last thing Macri needs right now is a victory by a gubernatorial candidate so closely associated with Fernández de Kirchner as Martín Soria.
Note: This is the fourth entry of the Baker Institute’s Center for Energy Studies series on the 2019 Argentine elections. The next entry will appear on April 8, reviewing the results of the Río Negro election as well as explaining what the results of the April 7 primary election in Chubut tell us about the likely outcome of the June 9 gubernatorial election in Chubut.
Previous entries in this series are:
The 2019 Presidential and Petro-Province Elections in Argentina. January 22, 2019.
Mark P. Jones is the Joseph D. Jamail Chair of Latin American Studies and the Director of the Center for Energy Studies’ Argentina Program at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.
Follow him on Twitter @MarkPJonesTX