Argentina and the closing of the cycle

At the runoff on November 22, Argentinians will have to choose their next president, but they have already decided on the closing of the Kirchnerista cycle. Español.

Abel Gilbert
27 October 2015

Mauricio Macri. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

Historical cycles usually end by social fatigue or the logic of the political pendulum. Sometimes unpredictability confers strength to the signs foreboding the closing of the cycle. This is what appears to be happening in Argentina.

The results of the presidential election held on October 25 came as a surprise to pollsters, analysts and the contenders themselves. There will be a runoff on November 22 between the mainstream Peronist candidate, Daniel Scioli, and the Conservative leader, Mauricio Macri. Before the official results came out on Sunday night, the possibility of this scenario was in everyone's mind. What nobody expected was a Scioli victory by only just 2.5 points over the mayor of Buenos Aires who is also the son of one of the wealthiest men in the country. That is, Scioli was the defeated winner. And Macri, the loser, is the one who can best envision the likelihood of a final victory. This is why observers compared the results to an earthquake, or to a restorative hurricane.

Scioli was not the only casualty: President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner paid a collateral cost. She had appointed him her heir not on the basis of an irrefutable sum of virtues. Horacio Verbitsky, a columnist who does not conceal his sympathy for the President, noted the original shortfall of Scioli’s candidacy. He was chosen, he said, "through a process of elimination and not out of excitement, which comes to prove Kirchner's inability to arrange a reliable succession not based on family ties, probably her greatest political deficit." Now the succession is highly uncertain. The towering block erected by Kirchnerismo over the last 12 years was rocked like never before. By now, Macri knows that this is a unique opportunity for him.

On Sunday night, Scioli was defeated even though there is still quite a long, steep way to go. A gloomy expression was on his face. He had received less votes than in the open primaries in August. To plan an election campaign with eight or nine points in the lead is not the same as to do it when you have your opponent close on the heels. "Yesterday, the political planetary system underwent a striking rearrangement," said La Nación’s canny columnist Carlos Pagni. Pagni compared the upheaval with Raúl Alfonsín’s win in 1983 against Peronism, which believed itself to be unbeatable. There is, however, one fundamental difference. Alfonsín defeated Ítalo Luder with a social democratic program which included the rejection of the so-called self-amnesty law for the officials responsible for the repression under the military dictatorship, and the defense of the civil liberties which had been trampled by the outgoing regime, which was forced to call elections after the Falkland’s War. But Macri’s role model is Spain’s José María Aznar.

He has been hiding this in his run for the presidency. The centre-right coalition that supports him goes by the name of Cambiemos (Let’s change), a proposition many Argentinians find very attractive. "Borders will be open and flags hoisted," says his electoral propaganda. But Macri stores in a closed chest the meaning he gives to the word "change." So far he has said what the listeners want to hear: he will keep the "good" things the current government has done and revise whatever is wrong. He believes this argument will suffice for him to win. It is somewhat paradoxical that Scioli, who shares Macri’s conservative disposition, and who in his tenure as governor of Buenos Aires has carried out hard punitive policies amid strong complaints of police killings and torture allegations, should be defeated while wearing an uncomfortable progressive costume.

Last Sunday’s talk about quakes has to do with the fact that Scioli and Cristina, and Cristina and Scioli (the order of the factors, at this point, does not alter the product) experienced a double setback. Cambiemos snatched control of the Buenos Aires province, which accounts for 38% of the electoral roll. María Eugenia Vidal, who holds a degree in Political Science from the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, defeated President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s chief of staff, Anibal Fernández. Young, articulate and charismatic, Vidal came out with an electoral offer with strong emotional undertones ("I have heard you with my heart") against a civil servant who carried on his back the weight of unproven media allegations of collusion with drug traffickers.

Sergio Massa got 21% of the votes in the election. Until 2011 this belonged, at least in part, to Kirchnerism. But Massa left two years ago, taking with him a share of its political capital. This fracture is another important reason for the results of October 25. There is always an ironic or sarcastic side to politics. Back in 2013, Massa, Macri and even Scioli conspired to form a united anti-kirchnerista front. Scioli decided at the eleventh hour to stay loyal and wait for a jackpot that may never be. And Macri, following his guru, the Ecuadorean Jaime Durán Barba, understood that he had to go it alone. And when he joined forces with Alfonsín’s Unión Cívica Radical (Radical Civic Union - UCR), he did so from a position of absolute advantage.

Scioli, who a few weeks ago shun a TVdebate with the other contenders because he felt he was clearly in the lead, was asking for a face-to-face debate with Macri the day after the first round of the election. Macri did not say no, and promptly went out to get Massa’s votes. The behaviour of the dissident Peronists will determine the fate of both candidates. Cristina kept her silence and made her calculations: if her ranks do not break off, she will be able to hold the majority in the Senate. In Congress, hers will remain the largest minority group (117 deputies), but she will fall short of an overall majority. If Macri is elected, he will have to negotiate with her.

On Monday, Argentina was another country. The run on the dollar stopped. Stocks rose 20% on Wall Street. The market welcomed the good news. Regional expectation is not lower: a shift to the right in Argentina will have immediate effects in Brazil, its main trading partner. It will also weaken Venezuela-friendly countries. And it will bring back the idea of a free trade zone between Latin America and the United States. In 2005 George Bush Jr. named it the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Néstor Kirchner, Hugo Chávez and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva wrecked it. But the project was never fully sunk: it just waited for a better chance to surface. Will it do so with Mauricio?

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