When Daniel Scioli emerged on Sunday night to declare victory in the first round of Argentina’s presidential election, it was clear that he did not expect to win the presidency outright and that he would face a runoff — even though no official election results were yet announced.
When the first results finally came at around 11 p.m., they showed a far closer race than anyone predicted. At one point, Scioli’s rival, outgoing Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri, was actually leading Scioli. Ultimately, Scioli narrowly won the presidential election’s first round, but Macri’s support was so unexpectedly strong that he now enters the presidential runoff campaign as the odds-on favorite to end 12 consecutive years of kirchnersimo.
At stake in the presidential showdown is the legacy of one of the most important bastions of Latin America’s populist, statist left.
Macri, the candidate of the center-right Cambiemos (Spanish for ‘Let’s change’) coalition, has gradually expanded a political movement that was once limited to just the most affluent corners of Argentina’s capital. The son of an Italian immigrant, Macri joined his father’s business in the automobile sector before becoming the president of the popular Boca Juniors football club. He first entered politics in 2003, waging a failed run to become mayor of Buenos Aires. He lost that race, but he used the experience to form a new urban, liberal political party, Propuesta Republicana (PRO, Republican Proposal) in 2005 and, two years later, he won the mayoral election.
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As the standard-bearer of the Cambiemos coalition, he merged his own Buenos Aires-based movement with the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR, Radical Civil Union), a long-lived liberal party that has stood as a contrast for decades to the dominant left-wing populist peronismo. Most voters believe that Macri is the candidate most likely to lift capital controls and bring Argentina back into global debt markets, even if it means a peso devaluation and strong measures to tamp down inflation. Nevertheless, with economic neoliberalism still widely discredited after the economic crisis of 1999-2001, Macri has taken efforts to reassure that he will not subject the Argentine economy to immediate radical change, and he’s even gone out of his way to praise the values of peronismo.
Despite doubts, the Macri campaign’s plan seems to be working. He swept the city of Buenos Aires, along with the provinces of Mendoza, Córdoba, Santa Fe and Entre Rios in Sunday’s vote.
His success in Sunday’s general election took Argentines somewhat by surprise. When election day began, it was conceivable that Scioli, a former vice president and currently the governor of Buenos Aires province, might have scored a first-round victory in the presidential race. He boasted the support of outgoing president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the governing Frente para la Victoria (FpV, the Front for Victory), an electoral coalition anchored by Argentina’s peronista ‘Justicialist’ Party. A former motorboat racing star, Scioli took a lead in polls early in 2015, and he’s consistently held an advantage to become Argentina’s next president. Despite rampant inflation, health scares, political intrigue and a slowing economy, Kirchner’s approval ratings have generally improved over the course of the last year — so much so that everyone expects her to try to return to the Casa Rosada in the 2019 election. Most recently, in Argentina’s compulsory open presidential primaries on August 9, Scioli won 38.4% of the vote versus just 30.1% for Cambiemos.
What a difference two months can make.
Brimming with momentum, Macri will advance to a final one-on-one round against Scioli on November 22, the first contested presidential runoff since the return to democracy in 1983. Accordingly, the next 28 days will witness one of the most intense political contests in decades of Argentine politics. The two candidates have agreed to meet for a debate in Buenos Aires on November 15.
A rare opposition victory in Buenos Aires province
Even more impressive than Macri’s performance, though, was the Cambiemos victory in the gubernatorial race in Buenos Aires province. Home to 16.3 million of the country’s 43.4 million citizens, it’s by far the most important province in Argentina — culturally, economically and politically. Though economic liberals routinely dominate western Mendoza province, and though José Manuel de la Sota, an alternative peronista, is currently governor of Córdoba province to the northwest of Buenos Aires, peronistas have controlled Buenos Aires province since 1987 and kirchneristas, in particular, have controlled the province for the last decade.
María Eugenia Vidal, the 42-year-old deputy mayor of the city of Buenos Aires since 2011 and Macri’s former minister of social development, defeated Aníbal Fernández, a dour apparatchik of the Kirchner regime who has served twice as Kirchner’s chief of cabinet and as justice minister and interior minister. But as long ago as 1994, charges of corruption and misappropriation of public funds dogged Fernández and, in more recent years, he has been linked to even murkier figures in the Argentine underworld, including drug traffickers. In August, Fernández only narrowly defeated Julián Domínguez, president of the Argentine Chamber of Deputies since 2011 and a former agricultural minister in the Kirchner administration.
Fernández’s personal weaknesses made him a far less popular figure than Scioli, but the loss of the province to the opposition is still a staggering embarrassment for Scioli, given that he is the outgoing governor. Vidal’s triumph shows that the province can be fertile ground for the opposition, and Macri has a credible chance of winning the vote-rich province in the runoff — if he does, it is quite unlikely that Scioli can win the presidency.
Scioli is already running hard against macrismo with the runoff in sight, accusing Macri of dishonesty. Kirchner herself was pulling on Argentine heartstrings with a well-timed visit Tuesday to the mausoleum where her late husband, Néstor Kirchner, is buried on the fifth anniversary of his death. For the past 12 years, both Kirchners worked to develop the power of the state, and both Kirchner and Scioli can be expected to deploy the full power of the government to win the runoff.
Massa as kingmaker
Both candidates are seeking the supporters of the third-placed candidate, Sergio Massa, Tigre mayor and the leader of an alternative peronista group, the Frente Renovador (FR, Renewal Front). Like Macri, Massa outperformed his result in the August primaries. In the aftermath of the 2013 midterm elections, Massa emerged as a frontrunner for the 2015 elections when the Renewal Front won a bonanza of congressional seats in Buenos Aires province. Though he served as Kirchner’s first cabinet chief, Massa broke with kirchnerismo in 2013 as the economy worsened and Kirchner’s penchant for state intervention increased. As a presidential candidate, Massa offered an alternative to kirchnerismo without necessarily a break with the leftism of the (maddeningly vague) peronista mantle. In essence, Massa promised a more business-friendly version of Kirchner’s policies. But Massa also offered an administration that would be more independent from Kirchner — in contrast to Scioli, who was forced to name Kirchner’s longtime ally and presidential attorney Carlos Zannini as his running mate, seeding doubts about Scioli’s ability to chart his own course if elected.
For his part, Massa may not endorse either contender, but it seemed clear in the immediate aftermath of the first round that he was leaning more towards Macri as a more credible option for reforming Argentina’s economy.
A split Congress will moderate Argentina’s next president
No matter who wins the election, change is coming to Argentine politics. Most economists agree that the next president (whether Scioli or Macri) must introduce tough measures to arrest the country’s inflation and the widening gap between the peso‘s official rate and the ‘blue dollar’ street rate. The weakening economies of neighboring Brazil and Chile also bode ominously for the Argentine economy. After years of nationalizing everything from private pension plans to the state oil company, Kirchner’s government is running out of fresh sources of hard foreign currency reserves. That means that the next president will face mounting pressure to settle with foreign investors over the country’s default in the early 2000s so that Argentina can once again sell bonds in the international debt market.
Voters on Sunday also elected one-half of the seats in the Cámara de Diputados (Chamber of Deputies), the lower house of the Argentine Congress, and one-third of the seats in the Senado (Senate), the upper house. As many of the senatorial elections took place in rural kirchnerista strongholds, the FpV actually gained five seats in the Senate, where they will continue to hold a majority. But none of Argentina’s major parties claims a majority in the Chamber of Deputies.
If Scioli wins, he will need to appeal to either Massa’s alternative peronistas or a handful of Macri’s liberals to enact his agenda. If Macri wins, however, he will need not only Massa’s Renewal Front but at least some kirchneristas as well — a fact that should temper any fears that Macri will radically transform Argentine economic policy.
So despite outlandish claims that Argentina’s democracy was invariably descending into a Venezuela-style socialist autocracy, Sunday’s congressional elections delivered a split verdict that will reinforce democratic checks and balances.