BUENOS AIRES, Argentina, Oct. 9, 2007 -- Tomatoes could be the deciding factor in Argentina's presidential elections Oct. 28, and not in the form of flying objects hurled at the candidates.
As one local comedian put it, it would make more economic sense to toss caviar at candidates. And that's just the point.
Tomatoes in this country are normally priced between 1.50-2.00 pesos (50-70 U.S. cents) per kilo. But in the last couple of months the cost has risen by about seven times the usual price.
Argentines, who do not live by meat alone, are livid about price hikes on their favorite salad and pasta sauce ingredient.
Starting Oct. 8 consumer groups have implemented a weeklong boycott of tomatoes. Some supermarket chains say they will not purchase tomatoes wholesale as a form of support of the protest.
Now Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the current first lady who is expected to be elected president in three weeks, suddenly finds herself slipping in the polls, with some blaming the tomato factor for the shift.
Sitting President Nestor Kirchner could have tried for a second term but instead decided to allow his wife, a powerful senator and longtime political figure, to take up the candidacy. Political pundits here talk about the power erosion in the second term of office as being the reason for the husband-wife switch.
Polls show that de Kirchner has between 35 and 44 percent of the votes with center-left candidates Elisa Carrio and Roberto Lavagna battling for second place with 12 to 18 percent.
In Argentine presidential elections, one needs 45 percent, or 40 percent and a 10 percent differential, to win outright. Given that de Kirchner seems to have a wide margin of victory, she needs only to reach 40 percent of the vote to win in the first round. Most observers agree that if the election goes to a second round, anything is possible. De Kirchner will then face a hard fight to win since her opponent will centralize the opposition vote.
"Cristina has a big hurdle of about 30 percent of the people we polled who said they would never vote for a woman," said Jorge Giaccobe, one of Argentina's main pollsters, in a press conference attended by ABC News. "Most of those who said that are the older portion of the electorate, and one-third of them are, believe it or not, women. But this is a factor in the election, especially if it goes to a runoff."
An elderly woman at a vegetable stand in suburban Buenos Aires asked for one tomato and bitterly complained, "These Kirchners are responsible for my buying habits. I've never been so humiliated in all my life!"
Tomatoes aren't the only fruit or vegetable whose price has surged in recent months, but with a 500 to 700 percent rise they represent the costliest increase and thus have become a symbol of inflation. The elderly woman also asked for a half dozen green beans, a quarter kilo of dirty potatoes (if clean, they cost more) and one ear of corn.
Radio comedian Adrian Stoppleman told ABC News that in recent weeks he can't go a day without writing some material about tomatoes. Sample: "The tomato is a healthy food, except its price can make you sick!"
Or, "Instead of jewelry, people are taking their tomatoes to the pawn shop."
Argentina has had two huge economic collapses in the last two decades.
In 1989-90 the country suffered from hyperinflation, with prices rising in one 12-month period by 6000 percent. In 2001-2002 Argentines lived through the worst sovereign debt default in history, with a depressed economy causing 60 percent of the population to live under the poverty line with 30 percent unemployment and a bank freeze making access to local bank accounts all but impossible for four months.
Argentines say they want a change, but the truth is they want and vote for stability, said Rosendo Fraga, a pollster and director of the Centro de Estudios Unión para la Nueva Mayoría (Study Center for the New Majority), in a press conference attended by ABC News.
And for the past few years, stability has been achieved with average annual growth of 8.5 percent, balanced budgets, a debt decease from 175 billion USD to 120, unemployment cut to one-third of what it was when Nestor Kirchner took over and those living under the poverty line descending to 23 percent.
"However, our polls showed Kirchner had more than 60 percent support in March and that has gradually been slipping," said Fraga.
When asked if inflation was a factor, Fraga pointed to inflation as the best example of instability. And therein lies the tomato.
"Tomato prices can be attributed to three factors," explained Mariano Winograd, director of Cinco al Dia (Five a Day), a nongovernmental organization which attempts to convince Argentina's carnivorous citizens to eat five portions of fruits and/or vegetables per day.
"There are structural, seasonal and production problems that have contributed to a relative scarcity of tomatoes on the market," Winograd told ABC News.
"Relative because this is a short-term major problem that is already working itself out. Structural as in all of Latin America where marked growth has made for a sudden surge in demand for fruits and vegetables. Seasonal because our (southern) winter was the third coldest on record, only 1816 and 1918 being colder. Production being that more and more land is being utilized for grains, oilseeds and biofuel commodities (canola, zatrofa, corn, sugar, etc.), replacing land that had produced fruits and vegetables."
Winograd and other market observers believe tomato prices will not drop back to 50 cents (USD) per pound any time soon, if ever. However the price should slowly descend as the warm weather buoys the spring harvest.
Just what the de Kirchner campaign wants to hear. If tomato prices do actually descend, her victory in the first round of the election seems assured.