Sergio Massa: the ‘unity’ candidate facing a perfect storm

The Economy Minister and Union por la Patria candidate will have his work cut out for him in the general election this October

“A whole-field player.” While the phrase is typically reserved in Argentina for footballers who can play any position, it might just as easily apply to Sergio Massa.

The Unión por la Patria presidential hopeful has served as mayor of Tigre city and economic minister to the nation; developed close ties with local sports executives and officials in the U.S. government; aligned himself with Kirchnerism, the Peronist faction headed by Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, abandoned the movement, and reconciled with its leaders, all in a period of a few years. Friend to traitor to ally. Over the course of his political career, Massa has done it all.

A lawyer by training, Massa, 51, has spent his entire adult life in politics. Born in San Martín, Buenos Aires province, he became a proud citizen of Tigre — as well as a vocal fan of its football club — after moving to the district when he married fellow politician, Malena Galmarini. The couple has two kids, Tomás and Milagros.

Today, he is the ruling Unión por la Patria (UxP)’s presidential nominee for the October 22 general elections — and potentially all that stands in the way of either La Libertad Avanza’s Javier Milei or Juntos por el Cambio’s Patricia Bullrich. He was chosen as the “unity” candidate for UxP as a way of bringing together a severely fractured and debilitated political space. But, who is Sergio Massa, and how did he get there?

A quick ascent

Massa’s political journey began in the late 1980s, at the age of 15, as an activist for the liberal and conservative party Unión del Centro Democrático (UCeDé), led by liberal economist Alvaro Alsogaray. UCeDé allied with former Peronist President Carlos Saúl Menem in the early 1990s to support policies of mass privatization, an unregulated market and smaller state capacity. This was Massa’s introduction to Peronism, and he’s been a power player in the political coalition ever since.

Massa quickly rose to a position of leadership within the UCeDé, and in 1999, he became the youngest provincial deputy in Buenos Aires as a member of the Partido Justicialista. At the time, he was just 27.

Friendship and treason

During Eduardo Duhalde’s brief term as interim president in 2001, amid one of the worst economic and social crises in modern Argentine history, Massa became head of the National Social Security Administration (ANSES in Spanish) — a key government body responsible for pensions and social spending.

When Néstor Kirchner became president in 2003, he kept Massa at ANSES. There he would remain until the end of Kirchner’s term in 2007, despite winning a congressional seat in 2005. His four years at the agency would cement his place in a burgeoning Kircherist movement. 

In 2007, Massa returned to local politics, putting his activist background to the test. That year, he was elected mayor of Tigre, but only served for six months before leaving the position in July 2008 to become then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s chief of staff.

But then Massa zagged. In July 2009, he left the national government to finish his term in Tigre amid growing tensions with CFK.

Despite their differences, Massa was re-elected mayor of Tigre in 2011 as part of Kirchner’s coalition, Frente para la Victoria (FpV). He won with an astounding 73% of the vote, emerging as a political leader in his own right with the leverage to openly criticize Kirchernism. 

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In 2013, Massa created his own party, Frente Renovador (FR), along with several other mayors from Greater Buenos Aires. Although the party tilted Peronist, it was avowedly anti-Kirchernist — a novelty at the time.

In that year’s legislative elections, Massa ran as national deputy candidate for Buenos Aires province under the banner of FR, defeating FpV’s powerful candidate, Martín Insaurralde, by 43% to 31%. This solidified his position as self-proclaimed leader of the “wide middle avenue” and a centrist alternative to both Kirchernism and its right-wing opposition.

Massa ran for president in 2015 but finished third behind FpV’s Daniel Scioli and Cambiemos (now Juntos por el Cambio)’s Mauricio Macri, who narrowly won a run-off election that November.

During Macri’s presidency, Massa struggled to define himself politically. He wanted to be seen as anti-Kirchnerist, but remained Peronist. He was originally on good terms with Cambiemos, but that didn’t last. With his options limited and his electoral career on hold, he chose to pursue a closer relationship with U.S. officials.

Close ties to the US

Massa has made powerful allies wherever he’s been and regularly organizes asados (barbecues) at his house in Tigre, where friendship, business and politics often mix.

He is close friends with bankers, media moguls and football executives, many of whom have intimate ties to Argentine politics.

Massa has also developed close relationships with U.S. officials over nearly two decades, beginning with his time at ANSES, where he often dealt with international investment funds.

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Part of Massa’s broad appeal — and one of the largest knocks against him — is that he makes no ideological distinctions. Democrats or Republicans, Barack Obama or Donald Trump, progressive think tanks or Wall Street investors, he’s willing to work with anybody. This has especially served him in his negotiations with the IMF, after becoming economy minister in 2022.

These relationships are not only political, but personal. “Sergio has a way of bonding with people that makes him become very close to them, thanks to his personality and charisma,” a US source told the Herald. “It becomes a permanent relationship.”

Whether he’s dealing with the US or campaigning in Argentina, Massa believes he must appeal to everyone to achieve his political ends. “I try to learn from everyone, I’m unbiased in that sense,” he told Revista Anfibia in 2013. “I’d say I’m like a sponge.”

“Massa’s connections in the US are very solid and diverse, and are a result of years of nurturing political and personal relationships with key players from Congress, the White House, and the State and Treasury Departments,” said Gustavo Pandiani, incumbent Switzerland ambassador, who has been managing the minister’s international agenda for the past 10 years.

An economic minister turned presidential hopeful

Shortly before the 2019 presidential elections, Massa allied with non-Kirchnerist Peronists to form the Alianza Federal coalition as an alternative to Frente de Todos. But when Cristina Kirchner announced she was going to run as Alberto Fernández’s vice president, everything changed.

In June of that year, Alberto Fernández suggested on the TV news station C5N that they should meet over coffee and talk. A few days later, Massa announced that his party, Frente Renovador, would be joining the coalition of Frente de Todos, and that he would be running as a national deputy candidate.

After FdT’s victory, Massa became head of the Chamber of Deputies, where he allied with Fernández de Kirchner’s son, Máximo Kirchner. He had, once again, become a powerful voice within the Kirchernist movement.

When Martín Guzmán resigned as Economy Minister in July 2022, and Silvina Batakis was dismissed after only a month on the job, Massa stepped in to fill the void. It was his time to shine as “superminister.”

Massa was immediately tasked with re-negotiating a $44 billion debt with the IMF, containing skyrocketing inflation and a ballooning exchange rate — three crises in which Argentina remains mired.

As Economy Minister, Massa has stated he aims to achieve fiscal order, strengthen the country’s Central Bank reserves, and stimulate economic growth without leaving the poor behind.

With Alberto Fernández’s approval rating in freefall and Fernández de Kirchner unwilling to run again, Massa emerged as the consensus candidate with the best chance of defeating the the opposition party, Juntos por el Cambio.

“Sergio has always been a pro-market politician, but isn’t a classic liberal,” a source close to Massa told the Herald. “He is a classic Peronist: he believes in the cooperation between the public and private spheres.”

On October 22, Massa is all but guaranteed to finish in the top three. But after finishing behind both La Libertad Avanza’s Javier Milei and the Juntos por el Cambio coalition, his path to the Casa Rosada is vanishingly thin. 

Will he achieve his lifelong dream of sitting in the presidential chair?


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