Public works blitz helps Macri coalition in Argentina midterm vote

LANUS, Argentina (Reuters) - Adriana Rodriguez, a 59-year-old vendor at an open-air market in an industrial city in Argentina’s Buenos Aires province, never imagined her home would be connected to the sewage system.

Argentina's President Mauricio Macri speaks during a news conference at the Casa Rosada Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires, Argentina October 23, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

But as business-friendly President Mauricio Macri invested in infrastructure ahead of Sunday’s legislative election victory, sewage construction in her hometown of Lanus advanced to within two blocks of Rodriguez’s house. She expects pipes to reach her home soon.

“My husband and I thought we would die without getting connected to the sewage system,” she said. “It is a step forward.”

Like many of the working-class suburbs surrounding Argentina’s capital that collectively make up the country’s most important electoral region, Lanus has long been a bastion of support for the Peronist movement, which generally emphasizes strong unions and redistributive policies.

Macri’s coalition, which initially struggled to appeal to the working class, went after those votes with a 150 billion peso ($8.7 billion) public works plan in Buenos Aires province, home to more than a third of Argentine voters. It paved roads and built express bus lanes after a decade of stagnant infrastructure investment under former populist President Cristina Fernandez.

That helped Macri’s “Let’s Change” coalition defeat Fernandez in the province’s Senate race on Sunday.

In Lanus, Macri’s candidate beat Fernandez with 40.8 percent of votes versus 38.9 percent. That compared to a virtual tie in an Aug. 13 primary.

“People now identify ‘Macrismo’ with public works,” said Marcos Buscaglia, founding partner at Buenos Aires political and economic consultancy Alberdi Partners. “It has given them a lot of hope to actually see paved roads, sewers, and the like.”

When a Macri ally took over as Lanus mayor in December 2015 from a Peronist, just 35 percent of the city’s residents were connected to the sewage system. The municipality is aiming for 100 percent connection by 2019, and state-run water service company AySA says it has invested 5.6 billion pesos ($321.7 million) in Lanus, including 60 sewage pipe projects benefiting nearly 300,000 residents.

Some remain skeptical. Many of the projects are being financed with debt, a hot button issue in Argentina due to still raw memories of the country’s 2001 debt default and economic crisis. In August, the Inter-American Development Bank pledged $305 million to fund water projects, including sewerage in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area.

“The moment will come when the lenders want to collect,” said Alberto Francisco, a 46-year-old shopkeeper in Lanus, a Fernandez supporter. “We will end up like in 2001: without money.”

Reporting by Luc Cohen and Cassandra Garrison, Writing by Luc Cohen, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien