Argentina’s presidential elections put change on the horizon

Buenos Aires, Nov. 10, 2105: Argentinian presidential candidate for Cambiemos coalition, Mauricio Macri (source: dpa)
Buenos Aires, Nov. 10, 2105: Argentinian presidential candidate for Cambiemos coalition, Mauricio Macri (source: dpa)

At the end of October, Argentinians went to the polls to choose a president, as well as provincial governors and a host of local officials. The results were a huge surprise, especially for pollsters, writes GIS Latin America expert Dr Joseph S. Tulchin.

Almost all had predicted that President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s hand-picked successor Daniel Scioli, the governor of Buenos Aires Province and a member of the president’s Front for Victory (FPV) electoral alliance, would win in the first round.

That did not happen. The leader of the opposition, Mauricio Macri, the mayor of the city of Buenos Aires, came within 3 per cent of Mr Scioli to force a run-off on November 22.

Mr Macri ran under the banner of a coalition called Let’s Change (Cambiemos) which brought together his centre-right party, the Republican Proposal (PRO), the Radical Civic Union (UCR) and a number of smaller parties.

Taken together, Cambiemos and other groupings opposed to the president garnered a clear majority – 15 million out of the 24 million votes cast.

Perhaps the most striking vote against the Kirchner government came in Mr Scioli’s own Buenos Aires Province, the largest electoral district in the country. There, one of Ms Kirchner’s closest allies, Anibal Fernandez, was soundly defeated in the race for provincial governor by a relative neophyte, Maria Eugenia Vidal of Cambiemos.

In the weeks before the run-off, Mr Scioli must distance himself from the president while retaining as many of her passionate supporters as he can. Mr Macri’s challenge is to convince the nearly 30 per cent of the voters who voted against Ms Kirchener, but not for him, that they should side with his programme for change rather than with Mr Scioli.

The bulk of those voters backed Sergio Massa, a dissident Peronist who served in Ms Kirchner’s first government. Mr Massa and Mr Macri agree that it is important to strengthen ‘republican values’ – by which they mean respect for the constitution, for the separation of powers and for a more transparent model of federalism.

The most urgent problems that will confront any new president are the country’s hefty rate of inflation and a dispute with holders of its debt, known as ‘holdouts,’ who have refused to accept the restructuring plans negotiated in 2005 and 2010. This unresolved conflict has kept Argentina out of international capital markets.

At the same time, falling commodity prices have robbed the federal government of revenue needed to fund the expensive social programmes instituted by Ms Kirchner and her husband, the late President Nestor Kirchner. To replace the lost income from soy exports, the government imposed export taxes, which caused stagnation in the agricultural sector. Exchange rate controls and inflation have brought investment – both domestic and FDI – to a standstill.

Mr Macri, who made his mark as an energetic and pragmatic mayor of the Argentinian capital, has promised not to touch social programmes, especially elements of the social safety net. He insists that he is far from a free market zealot, but acknowledges that in order to spur economic growth in the short term, the government must find ways to accommodate the ‘holdouts’ and attract foreign investors.

While his background as a conservative businessman has alienated some progressives, Mr Macri is determined to form a broad coalition government. His proposed political base would include not only the UCR, which is strong in several of the interior provinces, but also the millions of voters who supported Mr Massa, the maverick Peronist.

A lot of bargaining will take place in the next few days as the two candidates jockey for endorsements from their first-round rivals. At the moment, it appears that Mr Scioli will not succeed in convincing voters that he is different from Ms Kirchner. If Mr Macri wins the run-off on November 22, Argentina can look forward to a fresh start, both in political and in economic terms.

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