The country’s general elections calendar is kicking off on Sunday, with voting in Neuquén and Río Negro — two provinces ruled by local parties that will have new governors in December.
In both provinces, local ruling parties Neuquen Popular Movement (MPN) and Together We Are Río Negro (JSRN) expect to hold power.
The election bunkers of both ruling parties will be separated only by a bridge, since the MPN –which runs with current vice governor Marcos Koopman– will be based in the Neuquen capital, while JSRN will be in neighboring Cipoletti, home of candidate and leader Alberto Weretilneck, who was once the city’s mayor.
However, the elections have much in common apart from geographical proximity.
Established provincial parties
One thing common to both districts is that political analysts keen on drawing national conclusions from the provincial results will struggle in places ruled by well-established provincial parties. Also, the main national parties look weaker in both provinces.
For example, the PRO-UCR partnership didn’t actually come through in Neuquen or Rio Negro, a preview of the ruptures that later occured.
In Neuquén, most of Mauricio Macri’s right-wing Propuesta Republicana (PRO) party endorsed Koopman’s top rival, national congressman Rolando Figueroa, a former MPN member (he was a vice governor under Omar Gutiérrez between 2015 and 2019). He broke away from the party that has ruled the province since the 1960s, and ran under the party Comunidad. He also has the support of sectors within the Partido Justicialista (PJ) and the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR). But the latter are also competing in the election: Juntos por el Cambio (JxC) is pushing radical Pablo Cervi for governor, while the Frente de Todos (FdT) runs again with Ramón Rioseco.
Meanwhile, in Río Negro, Weretilneck — who was governor until 2019 when he passed the torch to Arabela Carreras — is planning to return with an expanded JSRN. The UCR and the PJ have joined his front, led by national senator Martín Doñate. Therefore, Weretilneck, who is also a national senator, has managed to divide both FdT and JxC. In the first case, the Peronist candidate endorsed by Justice Minister Martín Soria will be Silvia Horne, while Cambia Río Negro is running with PRO leader Aníbal Tortoriello.
In short, extrapolating Sunday’s results to the October election to rule the Casa Rosada would be an unnecessary effort.
Looking at the vote count (which will be faster in Neuquen thanks to the single electronic ballot system), the main difference is that although MPN and JSRN are favorites, the ticket carrying Weretilneck and Pedro Pesatti (mayor of Viedma and Weretilneck’s vice governor until 2019) is expected to win by a wide margin, with no major rivals in sight.
Meanwhile, the duet formed by Koopman and Ana Pechén in Neuquen –with the blessing of outgoing governor Gutiérrez, ex-governor Sapag, and the oil workers union– will have to wait for the final countdown. Although the polls show MPN has an advantage — a wide one, in some cases — no one is ruling out that Figueroa could make a splash in a district that is at the center of the national gaze due to developments and investments in the Vaca Muerta shale oil and gas field.
Currently in a downward trend compared to its time of splendor, with the most optimistic polls giving it barely over 30% of the vote, the MPN is betting on divisions in the opposition. The latter’s troubled waters may extend the MPN’s fame of being “the party that never loses.” With PRO supporting Figueroa, they need the national government to boost Rioseco so he can fight for second place. The same happens with radical Cervi in the internal politics of JxC.
Incidentally, they are also lighting candles and hoping for a libertarian boom: they claim Carlos Eguía (Avanza Libertad) has grown in the final stretch of the campaign and is now fishing in the same pond as Figueroa’s PRO wing.
Internally, MPN’s Koopman is betting on the colectoras ballots (independent lists of legislative candidates that are attached to the governor and vice governor tickets of other political parties) and is carrying eight of them, apart from his good connections with business leaders, who see in the MPN a strategic partner for their businesses in Vaca Muerta, which is expected to progressively beat its own production records. He expects to have influence in the Confluencia area, which is formed by the province’s capital and surrounding districts –more than 50% of eligible voters. He also trusts the territoriality MPN has been working on way before its rivals.
At the campaign’s closing event, he also stressed the importance of provincial identity, assigning a negative value to the nationalization of national parties. The event took place on Wednesday night at the province capital where Koopmann said that MPN “is the only one who will defend Neuquén; since the rest of the political forces respond to national interests and are coming for our resources to benefit Buenos Aires’ centralism.”
Together with governor and vice governor, the Sunday elections will result in new 35 deputies and 18 substitutes, city mayors and council members in 21 districts, members of town and city councils and school boards. There are 546,166 Neuquen locals eligible to vote and a sixth ticket that joins the five candidates mentioned above: Patricia Jure and Raúl Godoy from the Frente de Izquierda Unidad.
Meanwhile, in Río Negro the JSRN is expected to retain the governor office. Weretilneck expanded his play to create a provincialist force. The national senator jumped to the governor office in January 2012 following the death of Carlos Soria shortly after taking office. They had gotten there through the Frente para la Victoria, but already in 2015 he renewed his office under the JSRN seal. And Martín Soria, Carlos’ son, became his top contender in the PJ and his hometown of General Roca, where the last name endures: María Emilia, Martín’s sister, was re-elected as mayor last month.
However, Weretilneck raised the stakes: provincialism is growing in allies and also dividing the entire oposition: PJ lost Doñate’s wing, which is attached as a JSRN colectora with Nos Une Río Negro. And Soria found support in Silvia Horne, from Movimiento Evita, who will run as the candidate of the Vamos con Todos front.
On the other end of the national polarization, he disintegrated Juntos por el Cambio and added UCR to his alliance. Cambia Río Negro is going with Aníbal Tortoriello, who on top of that had a traumatic campaign: on the way back from a rally last March, he ran over a pedestrian with his car, who died instantly.
Before that, Weretilneck had to beat the internal resistance. Arabela Carreras wanted to run for reelection, but the creator of the party won the armwrestle and made use of his leadership.
There are 589.251 people eligible to vote in Río Negro. Together with governor and vice governor, people will vote for the 46 seats of the State Legislature, the mayors of 22 districts and authorities of 34 towns. In addition to the three candidates mentioned above, there are six other tickets.