With Argentina in Recession, Macri Shifts Focus to Law and Order

(Bloomberg) -- As Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri tries to steer the national conversation away from economic gloom ahead of the October elections, one cabinet member is constantly by his side.

Security Minister Patricia Bullrich stood prominently next to Macri at the presidential palace on Monday as he announced a decree strengthening the government’s powers to recoup goods obtained via bribery, drug-trafficking or other criminal activities. It was her second appearance alongside Macri in little over a week, prompting rumors in the local press about a possible vice-presidential candidacy.

With Argentina in Recession, Macri Shifts Focus to Law and Order

With Argentina in recession and nowhere near the rosy economic scenario once promised by Macri, the government is eager to shift public attention toward the issue of security. Recent polls show that, while Argentines believe Macri’s government has performed woefully on the economy, it has surpassed expectations on law and order. Bullrich, who is considered one of his most popular ministers, is helping him to pivot the conversation.

“The government is in a battle to win back the middle class, and Macri can’t talk about the economy after the 2018 crisis,” said Lucas Romero, director of consulting firm Synopsis. “So he talks about an issue which the middle class is going to identify with: security.”

Nine out of ten Argentines say inflation is the biggest worry, followed by economic uncertainty and utility price hikes. Six out of ten think insecurity is a big issue, according to a multiple-choice poll by D’Alessio IROL-Berensztein, which interviewed 1,355 people in December.

Bullrich has cultivated a reputation as a stalwart minister in the fight against corruption and the government has confiscated a record amount of drugs under her watch. She also led the security organization for the summit of leaders of G-20 countries late last year, which went smoothly.

With Argentina in Recession, Macri Shifts Focus to Law and Order

The Opposition

Crime and corruption are also two weak spots for Macri’s likely opponent in the election, former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. A couple of her former senior ranking officials are in jail following their conviction on bribery and corruption charges. Kirchner has been charged in multiple graft cases too, but currently enjoys legal immunity as a senator.

Macri, a pro-business president who took office pledging to reduce poverty and inflation, saw his poll numbers fall in 2018 as Argentina plunged into a currency crisis. The peso weakened 50 percent last year, consumer prices rose by almost the same amount and the economy likely contracted about 2.5 percent. Poverty also ticked up after declining for two years. As the recession drags on, Macri wants to turn voters’ attention elsewhere.

The focus on crime “is a way of keeping corruption at the forefront of people’s minds where his opponent has a huge weakness,” Shannon O’Neil, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in Buenos Aires. For Macri, “if he’s lucky, the economy will have recovered by election time. But you have to run on something, and one of the things you see in the polls is that Argentines care about security.”

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