A Post-Peronist President at Last?

The last time Argentina was scheduled to hold a presidential runoff election was 12 years ago. That occasion was very unusual in that the winning candidate, intimidated by the thin margin of his victory, decided to quit the field. Rather than risk losing in the second round of voting, he chose to step down, leaving the presidency to the candidate who had been the runner-up in the first round.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in a country whose history can appear maddeningly cyclical, Argentina finds itself at the same crossroads once again. The winning candidate, the Peronist governor of Buenos Aires Province, Daniel Scioli, appeared glum-faced and depressed on election night, Oct. 25.

Disappointed because polls had promised Mr. Scioli an easy victory in the first round, his supporters quickly deserted the Luna Park stadium where they had assembled to celebrate. Mr. Scioli himself slunk away early, unable to deliver a victory speech because the early results had shown his leading opponent, Mauricio Macri, ahead — before the trend corrected in Mr. Scioli’s favor.

Mr. Macri, meanwhile, celebrated his second place as if it were a victory of historic proportions, delighting supporters of his centrist Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition with his trademark, stiff “daddy dancing” to booming music at the party center. A jubilant Cambiemos crowd broke into a soccer fan’s chant of “Ar-gen-ti-na! Ar-gen-ti-na!” while balloons and confetti rained from above.

In the often confusing world of Argentine politics, where the Peronist movement still dominates, commanding a quasi-religious fervor — even as it splinters and reassembles — Mr. Macri’s camp has every reason to feel victorious after running a close second. Mr. Scioli has even had to step forward to deny that, as happened in 2003, the first-round winner would drop out rather than contest the runoff, which will be held on Nov. 22. Opinion polling shows Mr. Scioli losing ground to Mr. Macri.

So there is the real prospect, for the first time since Argentina’s return to democracy 32 years ago, that we may have a president who is neither from the Peronist Party, which has held the office for 25 of those 32 years, nor from its erstwhile rival, the nearly defunct Radical Civic Union, which won the presidency twice. Mr. Macri set up his Republican Proposal party (PRO) only 10 years ago, on the strength of his personal fortune and his presidency of Boca Juniors, one of the most popular soccer clubs in Argentina.

At first, he was dismissed as incapable of winning popular support because of his upscale roots in the glitzy Barrio Norte neighborhood. But in 2007, he ran for mayor of Buenos Aires and won by a landslide — a feat he repeated when re-elected four years ago.

In the heated rhetoric of Argentine politics, Mr. Macri’s opponents have — to his chagrin — often tried to cast him as a coldhearted neoliberal, a free-market ideologue who would roll back the populist economic measures that have benefited the poor and low-income workers over the last 12 years of Peronist Party rule. The graffiti of Peronist supporters reads: “Macri is hunger and unemployment.”

“We know we have to deal with that vision many people have of Macri,” says a PRO legislator named Laura Alonso. “But we believe that our actions will disprove that vision.”

During his campaign, Mr. Macri pledged that he would not touch the generous welfare programs, especially the universal child benefit plan put in place by Argentina’s popular departing president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. She also nationalized pension funds and brought under state control some of the country’s largest companies, including the oil giant YPF.

Mr. Macri’s promises were made against the background of the national open primaries in August, in which he won a mere 24 percent of the vote. After Argentina’s seven decades in thrall to Peronist populism, any seeker of public office knows that to publicly embrace a strongly free-market economic program would amount to political suicide. But given his solid result in the first round, and if he should win by a wide margin in the runoff, Mr. Macri may reconsider his pledge.

Oddly, Mr. Macri now finds himself in the position that Mrs. Kirchner’s predecessor (and husband), Néstor Kirchner, found himself in in 2003. Then, Mr. Kirchner came in second, with only 22 percent of the vote, behind Carlos Menem, who had been president already for two terms between 1989 and 1999.

Although both were Peronists, the party was split. Mr. Kirchner was an economic populist, while Mr. Menem was a free-market enthusiast. Then, as now, the nation’s mood swung sharply in favor of the runner-up — only, now, the political poles have been reversed.

After that shaky start, Mr. Kirchner built what might have become a long-lived dynasty. In 2007, rather than fight for re-election, he stepped aside to enable his wife to succeed him as president. Only his untimely death, from heart failure, in 2010 prevented him from almost certainly accepting the favor returned — by following his wife in office in 2011. And quite conceivably, this rotating presidential couple could have run away with last month’s election, too.

Mr. Scioli’s challenge now is whether he can build on his slim first-round margin of less than 3 percent in the coming weeks. But Mr. Scioli’s greatest strength may also be his biggest weakness. He owes his main support to the perception that he will continue the policies of Mrs. Kirchner. Yet his close identification with the departing incumbent is also dragging him down.

A large section of the electorate has signaled that they’re ready for change; they’re frustrated at the stagnating growth and high inflation that are the dark side of her populist policies. In the first round, about 30 percent of the electorate voted for neither of the two finalists. That fact is more encouraging for Mr. Macri than it is for Mr. Scioli.

Uki Goñi is the author of The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Perón’s Argentina and a contributing opinion writer.

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