It was a historic night to remember. For the first time in Argentina’s turbulent democratic history, two major presidential candidates were meeting face to face for a debate that would present them with the opportunity to sweet talk undecided or independent voters.
And yet, neither of them managed to do that.
Presidential debates are a common practice around the Western world and serve as a de facto instrument for measuring which candidate is better suited to be President. It’s a peculiar ritual that grabs the political sphere by the feet and drags it into a sports arena where millions congregate to observe the reluctant gladiators draw blood.
We keep score. We make bets. We root for “our guy.” Should a candidate’s ability to lead a nation for four years be based on his resolve and charisma during a televised two-hour event? Probably not. And most people seem to agree since, according to this poll, only 16 percent of the electorate say they would consider changing their vote if their candidates failed to deliver on open mic night.
However, it’s the sports-like nature of such a historic night that turns it into such a “go big or go home” affair. So a winner is not only expected, but also required. And if I had to venture a guess, I would begrudgingly admit that Cambiemos’ Mauricio Macri was the one that looked more “presidential” (whatever that means) last night, partly because of his demeanor and partly because Victory Front’s (FpV) Daniel Scioli didn’t do himself any favors.
First, last night was surprising for many who were expecting a to see a combative Scioli and a relatively indifferent Macri.
For weeks we’ve heard that the Cambiemos camp was upholding its strategy of not engaging and avoiding all direct confrontation to prove that they are people of peace. But as soon as the lights went on, Macri lunged at Scioli in a way that not only stunned the Kirchnerite candidate, but the audience as well. “What have you become?” he asked, implying that the alleged Kirchnerite brainwashing had finally left him unrecognizable.
His point, of course, was suggesting that a vote for Scioli is a vote for a continuation of President Cristina Kirchner’s government, something that Scioli himself denied several times on stage whenever his opponent brought up the sitting President’s many controversial (i.e. unpopular) decisions. “You continue to debate the outgoing administration instead of debating me,” he repeated to no avail. Macri knew this strategy works, even though in reality, Scioli’s standing on many issues is in fact closer to Macri’s than to Cristina’s.
The Cambiemos candidate had most of the zingers and well-delivered punches, while Scioli only managed to emerge on top during the third segment while debating drug trafficking, when he told his opponent that “he hadn’t even been able to get rid of parking thugs (trapitos).” The result, was this meme.
Scioli’s body language was also uncooperative and projected a defeatist posture. He was there because he had no choice. He was fidgety, awkward and stiff, while Macri seemed relaxed even when he was on the offensive, the attitude of a confident front runner who feels he has already won.
It was an entertaining night with some amateur debating and vast room for improvement. There were no talks about Nisman, abortion, the environment or other pressing issues. Both candidates only seemed to address their well-established bases instead of appealing to those who still haven’t made up their minds. They conveniently ignored each other’s accusations and many (if not most) of their questions were left unanswered or were dealt with in such a vague fashion that the responses were more puzzling than the questions themselves.
Once it was over, both candidates left the auditorium in the same way they entered it, neither of them having managed to significantly tip the scale. But since Macri’s performance was decidedly more reassuring, the presidential debate instruction manual indicates he should be recognized as the winner of the night (a fate that was immediately sealed by this perfectly-timed photograph of him kissing his wife that went viral last night.)
In the end (and get ready to roll your eyes at me) I will say that the great champion of the night was Argentina.
As we slowly begin to recover the long lost art of debating (lost, of course, as a direct result of Cristina Kirchner’s doctrine of confrontation), the signs pointing to a time of healing are all here.
Sure, we still need a winner. But that doesn’t mean we can’t play together.
Baby steps, Argentina. Baby steps.