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Sergio Massa: can Argentine economy chief defy political gravity?

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© FILE PHOTO: Argentina’s Economic Minister Sergio Massa and Brazil’s Finance Minister Fernando Haddad (not pictured) hold a news conference, at the Casa Rosada presidential palace in Buenos Aires, Argentina, January 23, 2023. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian/File

BUENOS AIRES () – Argentina’s Economy Minister Sergio Massa is looking to defy political gravity, convincing voters to back a Peronist coalition that has held the reins as inflation has neared 140% and two-fifths of the population slid into poverty.

The 51-year-old political wheeler-dealer pulled off a shock win in the South American country’s first round general election on Sunday and now takes the momentum into a competitive Nov. 19 run-off against far-right libertarian Javier Milei.

Massa, the son of Italian immigrant parents, has built up a reputation as a pragmatist and negotiator, fending off criticism from the powerful leftist bloc of his coalition, while keeping opposition parties, business groups and investors onside.

“Massa is the least Peronist of the Peronists,” explained analyst Julio Burdman, from the local Electoral Observatory, adding that while this put him at odds with the party’s more activist “hard core,” it helped him click with moderate voters.

“Massa’s strong point is his plasticity to be voted for by all the various voter segments in a runoff. The level of support is low, but even so they will prefer him over Milei.”

The centrist economy chief, drafted into his current role last year as a “super minister” to turn around an economic crisis, has struggled to rein in inflation or halt a sliding peso currency, but has gained ground with popular tax cuts.

“He took the ministry of economy at a difficult time and he is steering the ship more than adequately,” Agustin Rossi, the current chief of staff and candidate for vice president on Massa’s ticket, told

“In Peronism, that is highly valued, not running away from difficulties.”

‘POWER HAS BEEN RECONFIGURED’

The country’s economic malaise could play against him, though voter fears about losing state support under a right-wing government are in his favor.

Four in 10 people live in poverty, inflation is in triple-digits and a scarcity of dollars is threatening a $44 billion loan deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). A recent drought has battered the farm-driven economy.

That has boosted outsider radical Milei who has pledged to “burn down” the central bank and dollarize the economy.

Massa, however, has pulled off a coup by unifying a fractured Peronist coalition and guiding them to an unexpected first round election win, helped by recent tax cuts and campaigns to highlight how prices could rise under Milei.

“With Massa, power has been reconfigured within the alliance. Massa has his own political structures,” a spokesman for the ruling party told

Despite tensions with the leftist wing of the alliance over spending cuts and his strategic proximity to the U.S., the Peronist coalition united behind Massa, partly in necessity as the most likely way to stay in power.

“I don’t know if the whole bloc is happy, but everyone is convinced we are playing a hard game and what’s ahead is very complicated for society,” an official from the leftist “Kirchner” wing of the Peronists said, asking not to be named.

“The opposition is always worse.”

PROBLEM SOLVER

Massa was a political early starter.

He studied at a Catholic school in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, joined a conservative political party and then shifted to Peronism. At only 27, he was elected as a provincial lawmaker and later was mayor in the important suburban region of Tigre.

He rose to chief of staff under Fernandez de Kirchner(2007-15), though later left her government under a cloud and set up his own political party. He finished third in the first round of voting when he ran for president in 2015, before he returned to the Peronist coalition as a congressman in 2019.

Massa, now, faces a tricky balancing act. The left criticizes him for cuts in social spending, while conservatives say he is not doing enough to reduce the fiscal deficit. But his backers hope his deal-making skills will get him through.

“He is a person who works a lot on building relationships. He does not speak only with his own people, but also with those who think differently, he speaks with practically the entire opposition,” an adviser to Massa for some two decades said on condition of anonymity.

“He prides himself on being pragmatic, solving problems.”

(Report by Nicolás Misculin; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Marguerita Choy)

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