Argentina to welcome back Peronists after four years of failed economic reform

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When Andrea Espinosa began offering food from her home in the Argentinian district of Neuquen eight years ago, it was just to hungry school kids.

Now even pensioners shuffle, embarrassed, into her tiny breeze-block shack.

Theoretically, Neuquen, which lies on a windswept Patagonian plateau, is one of Argentina’s boom towns, home to the third largest shale and gas reserves in the world.

On a recent campaign stop, incumbent president Mauricio Macri called the region “the beating heart of Argentina”.

But the scale of economic dysfunction Mr Macri has overseen in his four years in office has left a third of the country below the poverty line – and even the residents of Neuquen are struggling.

Now Neuquen, like the rest of Argentina, looks set to vote overwhelmingly to return the Peronists, four years after Cristina Kirchner’s government was kicked out over endemic corruption.

“This government is to blame,” says Mrs Espinosa, 25. “Inflation is out of control, and salaries can’t keep pace. People are hungry. Neuquen is the richest province in the country, and yet we’re living like this? It’s a disgrace.”

Mr Macri started well – attempting to peel back 20 years of Peronist economic illusion by resuming the publication of financial data, stripping away subsidies, and resolving long-standing feuds with international financial organisations.

But that soon stalled, due to both bad luck – the worst drought in 40 years, the US raising interest rates – and arrogance. Mr Macri seemed to believe his pro-business rhetoric was enough.

By 2018 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had approved the largest bailout package in its 73-year history – a $57 billion loan designed to shore up the country’s faltering economy and end its pattern of cyclical crises. The cash injection has not worked and Argentina’s annual inflation rate is the highest in the region at 54 per cent.

The Peronists have a new face in Alberto Fernandez, a 60-year-old former Cabinet secretary, but Mrs Kirchner still looms large as his running mate.

In May she arranged a meeting with Mr Fernandez to inform him, he said, that she was choosing him as the candidate. She would only run as his vice president “because the country needs someone who does not divide, but rather unites,” he recounted.

He insists he is more than just her puppet, but few believe him.

The announcement of her position on the ticket destabilised financial markets, as investors realised with horror that South America’s second-largest economy could soon be ruled once more by a populist who delighted in disrupting the international financial order.

The charismatic 66-year-old, who has been frequently compared to Eva Peron, has 11 corruption, bribery and money laundering cases pending against her dating from her time as president between 2007-15.

She denies the allegations, describing them as politically-motivated, but the testimony of her former chauffeur has been particularly damning.

In court testimony, he described driving bags of cash bribes to her from construction companies – 40 bags of money were even stashed away inside the mausoleum of Mrs Kirchner’s late husband and predecessor, Nestor, who died in 2010.

Her former planning minister is now serving a six-year sentence after he was caught throwing $9 million in cash over the wall of a convent outside Buenos Aires, in an attempt to hide it from investigators.And at the start of the year the newspaper Clarin calculated that 28 of her former officials or business associates were behind bars, mainly on corruption charges.

But for Mrs Kirchner’s supporters, who benefited from her generous social welfare programmes, her return cannot come soon enough.

“An old lady approached me the other day and asked when she was coming back,” said Nanci Parrilli, a deputy in Neuquen’s provincial government. “She told me that her last pair of glasses was given to her by Cristina. And she can no longer see.

“When I visited schools, they used to ask me if we could update the computers to the latest models. Now they ask for food.”

Francisco Sanchez, the national parliament candidate for Mr Macri’s Republican Proposal party in Neuquen, shakes his head sadly when asked why Mr Macri is staring defeat in the face.

“We’ve been good at management, but bad at marketing,” he said. “We’ve just been doing what a government should. In a province with 7,000km of roads, we built 1,000km. We’ve built three new hospitals. The government has been transparent, and is clamping down on corruption. Twelve years of Kirchner lies are over. We were handed a terrible inheritance. But four years isn’t enough to turn it around.”

Since a shock defeat in primaries in August, which sparked the currency plunge, Mr Macri has chopped taxes and told the energy firms that dollar contracts would be paid at a set exchange rate, far weaker than the market rate. He also imposed currency controls to keep the country’s diminishing supply of dollars from fleeing abroad. The moves have further spooked investors abroad, and appear unlikely to have achieved their purpose in shifting the dial in his favour.

“The benefits haven’t reached the people,” said Asuncion Miras Trabalon, Mr Sanchez’s rival. “The oil sector is controlled by an elite. Very few jobs have been created. Furthermore, Macri has focused on bringing in international companies, rather than employing our small businesses – which are highly trained and up to the task.

“The only thing Macri has done for us is saddle us with debt, which will take us 100 years to pay off.”

Mr Macri’s supporters are clinging to the hope that he can force the Fernandez-Kirchner team into a second-round run off, on November 24.

“It’s like a game of football – you play right to the final whistle,” said Mario Esteban Lara, a councillor for Mr Macri’s party.

And then hope for help from the Hand of God?

He laughed. “Not all of us are cheats.”