By Eliana Raszewski and Lucila Sigal
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Argentine conservative Patricia Bullrich, who many pegged just months ago as favorite to win the country’s presidential election, is now hoping her promises of economic stability and a tough-on-crime platform can keep her in the race.
The 67-year-old former security minister has found herself caught between the ruling leftist Peronist bloc and a shock far-right candidate who has soaked up much of her expected support, with angry voters protesting the political status quo.
Bullrich, a political science graduate popular with the business community, has pushed her moderate credentials, hoping to close a gap in polls ahead of the Oct. 22 vote. Polls have her in third place in a tight race between the top three candidates, but with a shot at making a second-round runoff.
“You have to have a backbone to govern this country,” Bullrich, the candidate for the Together for Change coalition, told Reuters at a recent press event. “I think I have shown courage, determination, and clarity of ideas.”
With annual inflation in triple figures, poverty over 40% and a recession looming, Bullrich is proposing a dual peso-dollar monetary system, a zero deficit, loosening capital controls, an education focus and strong security measures.
“These are changes Argentina needs: stability, ending inflation, ending the insecurity people are experiencing,” she said.
Bullrich is facing front-runner libertarian economist Javier Milei, who is promising more extreme policies, and economy minister Sergio Massa. With the polls having proved unreliable previously, she retains a chance to make the second round.
Bullrich, born into a traditional Argentine political family, began her activism in the 1970s in the Peronist Youth. Her family was forced into exile during the military dictatorship (1976-1983) before returning.
She later shifted away from the Peronists, was labor minister during the centrist government of Fernando de la Rua in 2000-2001, and in 2015 joined the main conservative bloc, going on to become security minister under President Mauricio Macri.
Her all-stripes political background is reflected in her relative moderate stance, which has in some ways played against her in the race. Her backers though said it was a strength against more polarized rivals Milei and Massa.
“One is a leap into the void and the other is more of the same thing,” said Cristian Ritondo, a candidate for the lower house of Congress on Bullrich’s list, who has known her since the 1980s. He said she was always working at a “frenetic” pace.
“What characterizes her is order: the political decisiveness to organize Argentina, the economy, education and security.”
Maria Alejandra Ferreyra, a childhood friend of Bullrich and a lower house candidate for the city of Buenos Aires, described her as a “born leader” who was open to different ideas.
“She has tried different things, which has been criticized, but it’s because she was looking for those who were willing to truly make change,” she said.
The Together for Change coalition had been seen in the driving seat until open primary elections in August, where outsider Milei pulled off a shock first place win. The conservatives came in second, though the internal vote was split between Bullrich and Buenos Aires mayor Horacio Larreta.
THEY WON’T MESS WITH HER
Voters cited Bullrich’s security credentials amid rising concern about crime, but also mentioned her stable persona.
“I think that what Bullrich offers is something sensible, balanced, and rational,” said Ana Balcarce, 63, a professor at the University of Avellaneda and Lomas de Zamora. She also cited the strong political machinery of the conservative coalition.
Bullrich, replying to Reuters, said that the coalition – win or lose – would be a strong political force with around 10-11 governors and large presence in Congress. “We are going to be very solid,” she said.
Bullrich, though, does have baggage from the time under Macri, who many blame for agreeing a then $57 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan program that the country is now struggling to maintain.
Facundo Martinez Maino, a member of Bullrich’s economic team, said that they had “learned from past mistakes” and would not take on new IMF debt if they won election, but instead follow a “pragmatic” and “doable” program.
Another voter, 61-year-old retiree Patricia Amalia Rojas, said she backed Bullrich for her tough line on gangs and crime.
“In terms of security, she already has experience so she knows where to go and they know her well. She knows that they are not going to mess with her.”
(Reporting by Eliana Raszewski and Lucila Sigal; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Marguerita Choy)