The two presidential candidates came head to head last night in a new ‘first ever’ for the country: a debate between the two candidates in an unprecedented presidential run-off. Boxing comparisons abounded and the conclusion was pretty widespread: there was no knockout blow, and any ‘winner’ was determined on points.
Just who that winner was depends on who you talk to, as both sides have been putting a positive spin on the contest. Daniel Scioli’s supporters think the Buenos Aires province governor thrashed his opponent, while Mauricio Macri’s supporters say the Buenos Aires city mayor was a comfortable winner. In our view, both candidates had their strengths and weakness, and neither of them really stood out as a clear leader on issues. In terms of discourse, style and aesthetics (under very unflattering lighting), Macri seemed to hold the upper hand for most of the debate, with Scioli repeatedly overrunning his time limits for questions and answers.
Even more so than in the October debate with the first-round candidates (minus Scioli), concrete proposals were thin on the ground last night. It is already hard to sum up a party platform with only two minutes per topic, but when those two minutes are used mainly for attacking the opponent or speaking about what has already been done, it becomes impossible.
Scioli generally spoke more about past achievements than new policies, but did hold out a hand to voters of Sergio Massa when he pledged to introduce the 82% adjustable pension income, eliminate income tax for workers, incorporate 100,000 new security personnel, and channel assets confiscated from drug traffickers to combat addiction. He also said he would “guarantee” an inflow of US$20bn to bolster the Central Bank’s international reserves.
Macri included broad proposals during his two-minute speeches on each subject, though mostly avoiding specifics. He pledged to build 3,000 new nurseries around the country and a ‘first job’ plan to eliminate all taxes for a person’s first five years of employment. He also said that he would seek to expel Venezuela from Mercosur and repeal the Memorandum of Understanding with Iran. Macri’s other main announcement was a ‘Plan Belgrano’, a US$16bn infrastructure programme to connect and develop Argentina’s northern provinces, where the Cambiemos leader has limited support. (Scioli retorted that Macri had just “copy/pasted” his own plans for the region).
In contrast to the lack of policy proposals, there were plenty of efforts from both candidates to attack the other’s track record or agenda.
Scioli’s strategy revolved mainly around pushing Macri on economic issues: devaluation, the lifting of currency controls, dependency on international credit organisations, and who will pay for his potential fiscal tightening. Macri accused him of being “a spokesman for what I’m going to do,” adding that he was not going to cut the budget. Given Scioli’s approach, it was odd that he missed the chance to demand Macri reveal exactly what his policy proposals are in relation to currency controls and devalution. This remains an area of uncertainty surrounding the Cambiemos leader, as his economic advisors have hinted at a plan to lift the restrictions on the purchase of currency as early as possible.
Macri, in turn, targeted the national government — even more so than Scioli’s provincial government – and criticised the FpV candidate for talking now about key issues that haven’t been dealt with before. Many of Macri’s questions aimed at forcing Scioli to explicitly refute or defend statements made by the president or Cabinet Chief Aníbal Fernández. Scioli retorted that he should be debating with him, not with a government that is finishing its term in December. This strategy was somewhat contradicted by the fact that Scioli himself kept highlighting the government’s achievements (and how Macri had opposed many of them, especially in terms of science, education, and nationalisations) rather than talking about his own achievements or proposals.
Neither contender strayed too far from their respective scripts. They both looked nervous at the beginning, and more confident in the second half, when the topics of security and human rights and democratic strengthening were debated.
Macri repeatedly accused his opponent of lying about his own plans and scored points by making it difficult for Scioli to distance himself from the more controversial characters and policies of Kirchnerism. One of his more memorable lines was: “Daniel, you are not change; you chose to represent continuity. You chose to be with [Carlos] Zannini, with Aníbal Fernández and Milagro Sala, with Axel Kicillof and Máximo Kirchner. We are the change.” However, by sticking to this counter attack he failed to clarify his economic proposals or reasons for changing position on several key issues.
Scioli, meanwhile, looked the more tense at the beginning, and his arguments were undermined by a lack of focus in his early questions and answers. He managed to regain some ground when talking about security, one of the few chances he took to talk about his own government’s initiatives (such as the local police forces and the increase in police personnel) while criticising Macri’s controversial Metropolitan Police force. His most pointed attack came in this segment: “If you still haven’t solved the issue of the trapitos [informal parking attendants on public streets], do you really think people will believe you can resolve the problem of drug trafficking?”
Both criticised the other for not answering the questions, while doing exactly the same thing when asked something awkward.
The biggest disappointment of the debate was that neither candidate provided satisfactory answers to the questions poised by their opponent. Evidently, the new format still did not really encourage a proper exchange of ideas, and the whole exercise came across as somewhat stiff. The result was two parallel monologues rather than a dialogue, with interaction mostly limited to a few jabs.
There are also many policy areas that weren’t covered at all. This time, the three moderators —the same as in the October debate— were instructed to intervene less from a personal perspective, but to include a suggestion of issues to cover in each subject area. This seemed to have little effect on the speeches prepared by the candidates, and topics such as the environment, health, gender violence, abortion, and foreign policy were largely untouched.
On the subject of gender, without candidate Margarita Stolbizer, the lack of women in the debate was even more conspicuous. Two male candidates interacted with the three male moderators, with the crowning moment the presentation of the trophy wives at the end of the debate with the comment: “next to a great man there’s always a great woman.”
All in all, we didn’t really learn a great deal from the debate, and it is perhaps telling that one of today’s major talking points is Macri kissing his wife, Juliana Awada, at the end of the night. It seems very unlikely that either candidate will have convinced people to switch votes if they were already decided, and hard to tell if those still unsure would be swayed by what they saw last night.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it was a worthless exercise; a TV audience larger than for the 2014 World Cup final speaks for itself. There will be time to make adjustments for the future: ideas include more active moderators – even asking questions themselves on behalf of the public – more specific subject areas, and softer lighting. And if in four years time we are discussing these details rather than whether to have a debate at all, it is surely a step forward.