Aug. 12 (Bloomberg) -- An open primary on Aug. 14 is becoming more urgent for Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s re-election efforts after a string of defeats in regional votes undermined support for the government.
Argentines can vote for any candidate in the Aug. 14 primary, which will give an indication of whether Fernandez, 58, has enough backing to win another four-year term in the first-round of the national election on Oct. 23 over opponents including lawmaker Ricardo Alfonsin and former President Eduardo Duhalde. Voting is mandatory.
Support for Fernandez fell to 36.8 percent last month from 39 percent in June, according to a July 22-26 survey by pollster Management & Fit, following social protests and a corruption scandal involving a government ally. A global slowdown also threatens to erode Fernandez’s record of delivering average annual economic growth of 5.6 percent since 2008.
“The idea that everything was already wrapped up has been killed,” said Federico Gonzalez, a political analyst at polling company Opinion Autenticada in Buenos Aires. The primary “will show that we are heading toward the October election with uncertainty” over Fernandez’s appeal.
Investors began dumping Argentine assets following Standard & Poor’s decision last week to cut the U.S. credit rating one level to AA+. The benchmark Merval stock index tumbled 10.7 percent on Aug. 8, the most in the world, while the cost of insurance against a default over the next five years rose the most after Pakistan.
Popular support for Fernandez slipped as pro-government candidates struggled in regional races. Last month, opposition leader Mauricio Macri was re-elected Mayor of Buenos Aires with a bigger margin than forecast and Fernandez ally Agustin Rossi finished third in the gubernatorial race in Santa Fe province. On Aug. 6, Jose de la Sota was elected Governor of Cordoba, the country’s second-biggest electoral district, after refusing to endorse Fernandez, a fellow member of the Peronist party.
Fernandez was also hit by a corruption scandal over misappropriation of funds to build homes for poor families by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group with close ties to the government. Fernandez hasn’t been accused of wrong-doing in the controversy.
Even with these setbacks, Fernandez’s closest allies are struggling to close the gap with the president.
Alfonsin, 59, is running second with 17.5 percent and Duhalde, 69, had 12.7 percent support, according to Buenos Aires-based Management & Fit. About 30 percent of respondents in the survey supported other candidates or are undecided. The poll had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
Under Argentine law, a candidate needs to win 45 percent of the presidential vote, or 40 percent and hold a 10 percentage point lead over the second-place finisher, to avoid a Nov. 20 runoff.
Duhalde is gaining ground and will do better than polls suggest, said an official with his campaign who declined to be identified because he isn’t authorized to speak publicly. Officials at Fernandez’s and Alfonsin’s campaigns didn’t respond to messages left by Bloomberg.
Fernandez, a lawyer and mother of two, succeeded her husband Nestor Kirchner in 2007 and has since presided over the country’s fastest economic expansion in five years. The economy grew 9.9 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier and 9.2 percent in 2010, the most since 2005. Unemployment in the second quarter tumbled to a record low of 7.3 percent.
“Count on me to do what remains to be done in Argentina, which is to deepen the policies of inclusion and continue this fantastic process of re-industrialization and job creation,” Fernandez said at a rally Aug. 10 to close her primary campaign.
Fernandez has tapped record central bank reserves to pay off debt, boosted spending on infrastructure, increased pension payments and created a program to pay poor families who keep their children enrolled in school. Last year she restructured $12.9 billion of bonds remaining from the 2001 default, prompting Argentine dollar debt to surge 36 percent, the most among major emerging markets, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBI+ Index.
“Fernandez’s big strength is the economic growth and social improvements she instigated,” said Daniel Kerner, a political analyst at the Eurasia Group, in a phone interview in Buenos Aires.
Even amid the global economic crisis, the peso has fallen just 0.4 percent this month to 4.1578 per dollar, the fourth-best performance among 25 major emerging market economies tracked by Bloomberg.
Fernandez’s policy of using central bank reserves to keep the peso stable and pay off debt have helped fuel double-digit inflation, according to former central bank President Alfonso Prat-Gay. The government tapped $6.6 billion in central bank reserves in 2010 to pay debt and plans to use $7.5 billion this year.
“From now until the elections in October the government will use reserves to keep a stable peso,” Segura said in an interview from New York. “But the crisis will hurt the next government.”
While the government said that consumer prices rose 9.7 percent in June, opposition lawmakers say that prices rose an average of 23.6 percent. Fernandez has fined private economists, including Orlando Ferreres & Asociados and Ecolatina, for providing inflation estimates that differ from the official rate.
Alfonsin, son of former President Raul Alfonsin, has based his campaign in part on pledges to improve inflation reporting and slow price increases.
Price increases of 5,000 percent in 1989 helped force Alfonsin’s father, Raul, to leave the presidency five months before his term was due to end. The poor economic track record of his father’s government and the fact that his Radical Civic Union party has stepped down from power early twice in the past 20 years means Alfonsin will struggle to gather enough votes to defeat Fernandez in a runoff, Kerner said.
While the government has suffered at the polls in recent weeks, Fernandez can take heart by the fact that most of the defeats in regional votes came in provinces already controlled by the opposition, said Kerner. Voters are backing current office holders or their successors as a result of years of economic growth, he added.
“The provincial elections so far have showed that when there’s a good economic situation, people tend to vote for the incumbent and don’t seek changes,” he said.
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