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Macri Supporters Pray for a Miracle Before Sunday Argentine Vote

Patrick Gillespie

(Bloomberg) -- Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s election prospects are talked about in the markets, by pundits and by diplomats as largely set in stone. He is expected to lose on Sunday to opposition candidate Alberto Fernandez.

The slimmest of windows exists for him to force the presidential race into a second-round runoff vote in November. But that’s enough for 45 year-old teacher Maria Orcoyen.

Last weekend Orcoyen donned Argentina’s flag to cheer for Macri alongside hundreds of thousands in Buenos Aires, a stronghold of support for the president. “I know that we’re going to win because I have a lot of faith,” she said.

Macri has drawn sizable crowds in recent weeks, crossing the country trying to keep his election hopes alive. But with more than 16 percentage points to make up (the size of his loss to Fernandez in a primary on Aug. 11), the odds are against him. He needs voters who didn’t come out in August to now do so, and he needs Fernandez supporters to switch sides.

“You would need a miracle really to turn around this election,” said Miguel Kiguel, director of consulting firm EconViews and a former World Bank economist.

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Voters turned on Macri in August after he failed to deliver on pledges to ensure single-digit inflation and zero poverty. His austerity also led to huge increases in utility bills, making it harder for people to live paycheck to paycheck.

Still, Fernandez’s left-leaning, populist policies -- where he has promised to boost salaries and freeze utility bills -- are making investors and the markets uneasy given an economy in trouble has drained government coffers. His strong showing in the primary set off a currency crisis that, perversely or not, many Argentines blame Macri for. The peso is close to a record low, having lost more than 20% since the primary, its fall only partially contained by capital controls that Macri imposed.

Assuming voter turnout rises on Sunday, Macri needs to take away at least 3 percentage points from Fernandez to force a runoff on Nov. 24, according to estimates from investment firm Portfolio Personal Inversiones.

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Looking at “affirmative votes,” -- only ballots cast for one of the six main candidates, excluding those that were blank or invalid -- Fernandez won 49.5% in the primary, while Macri took 32.9%, according to government data. Only affirmative votes will be counted Sunday.

For Fernandez to win outright he must get at least 45% of votes, or secure 40% with a 10-point difference to the runner up.

About 75% of Argentines voted in the primary, slightly more than in the last primary in 2015, but below the 81% of ballots cast in that year’s first round. Analysts say Macri would need to beat that turnout to have any chance.

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There are four other candidates in Sunday’s race. They could help Macri by taking voters away from Fernandez. But some fringe Macri supporters may also decide to go with another contender, believing he is a lost cause.

Despite the landslide primary loss, Macri hasn’t thrown in the towel. He’s been on a “30 cities in 30 days” tour, drawing big crowds, including the march in downtown Buenos Aires that Orcoyen attended. He’s prayed with evangelicals and kissed a woman’s foot.

Since August, Macri has also implemented a slew of populist measures, such as freezing gas prices. He’s shifted his rhetoric to say he acknowledges how hard times have become. The government hopes his underdog image will now help him in the first round.

Meanwhile, Fernandez largely tapered his campaigning in October.

Macri’s supporters say there was voter fraud in the primary, without accusing anyone in particular. They also say his coalition, which as the ruling group oversees vote counting, didn’t do a good job rallying its troops. The government believes stricter ballot counting in this round could swing voting by as many as five percentage points.

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“It’s going to be a very very tall order for him because of the sheer amount of voter participation that he needs to turn it around,” said Jimena Blanco, political research director at consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft. Yet “it is Argentina -- the country where you should expect the unexpected.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Gillespie in Buenos Aires at pgillespie29@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Juan Pablo Spinetto at jspinetto@bloomberg.net, Rosalind Mathieson

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