Argentina’s Fumbled Presidential Handoff

November 19, 2015, 10:08 AM UTC
Argentina Presidential Debate
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA - NOVEMBER 15: Mauricio Macri, Mayor of Buenos Aires and presidential candidate for CAMBIEMOS speaks during the Presidential Debate 'Argentina Debate' at University of Buenos Aires (UBA) Law School on November 15, 2015 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The NGO Argentina Debate organised the Argentina's presidential debate ahead of the November 22 runoff that will be held in Argentina. (Photo by Amilcar Orfali/LatinContent/Getty Images)
Photo by Amilcar Orfali—STR LatinContent/Getty Images

It seemed like a winning game plan. Daniel Scioli, the presidential candidate for Argentina’s ruling party, promised voters a continuation of the outgoing government’s leftist policies, improved with a few tweaks to lure back those who’d drifted away over its 12 years in power.

Many pollsters predicted Scioli to win last month’s first-round poll outright. Even if he didn’t and had to go to a run-off, Scioli was still expected to eventually overcome the leading opposition candidate, Mauricio Macri.

But in a spectacular turn that underscores the unpredictability of election races, it is opposition candidate Mauricio Macri who has emerged as the favorite in Argentina’s presidential run-off election on Nov. 22.

Today, Scioli is widely perceived as the underdog to Macri, the center-right outgoing mayor of Buenos Aires who has tapped into a groundswell of support for a shift away from the ruling party’s economic platform and abrasive governing style.

“The majority of Argentines want change,” says Marcos Peña, Macri’s campaign manager.

As evidence of this, Peña points to the first-round results, in which opposition candidates collected 63% compared to the 37% who voted for Scioli. In the Argentine electoral system, a presidential candidate wins in the first round if he or she receives 45% of the vote, or 40% with a 10-point lead over the second place candidate.

Macri came in second with 34%.

Twelve Years in Power

The ruling party, the Frente para la Victoria (Front for Victory, or FPV), rose to power after Argentina’s economy collapsed in 2001 and 2002. Party leader Néstor Kirchner, a little-known governor from Patagonia, became President in 2003, and he guided Argentina out of the depths of a socioeconomic crisis by expanding government spending and levying high export taxes on soy beans, Argentina’s cash crop.

Kirchner became hugely popular. And his Vice President was Scioli, a former national tourism minister and one-time powerboat racer who’d lost his right arm during a 1989 competition.

On the back of this strong economic growth, Kirchner’s wife, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, twice led the party to re-election, while Scioli moved on to spend eight years as the governor of Buenos Aires province, Argentina’s largest.

As President, Fernández continued and amplified her husband’s big-government policies. She also developed a combative style.

Her husband had begun his presidency by declaring in a speech that he would not cede to “pragmatism” by leaving his “convictions at the gates of the presidential palace.” But many voters began to wonder if Fernández—who drafted the speech, according to a biographer—had taken this concept of leadership too far.

In recent years, they say, she has become imperious as she wrestled with Argentina’s business establishment, hectored foreign political and business leaders, and skewered her opponents in public speeches.

“I like the direction of the political project, but I don’t like a lot of things about her,” says José María Jáuregui, 52, who used to run a chain of hairdressing salons. “She doesn’t debate with anybody; it’s a monologue.”

Under Fernández, the economy has also begun to sputter. Refusing to borrow in the global markets to finance government spending and bolster currency reserves, she opted for protectionist economic policies. These included currency controls and import restrictions, which angered foreign investors, middle-class Argentines, and manufacturers.

Growth stagnated and inflation spiked, to an estimated annual rate of more than 25% today.

Fernández, 62, was barred from running for a third consecutive term, so she endorsed Scioli as her successor. With a FPV party base that makes up around 35% of the electorate, Scioli’s campaign calculated that he would only need to make a small pivot away from Fernández to bring back lost voters. That, in theory, could have secured him a first-round victory.

Moving to execute that strategy, Scioli, 58, emphasized his plans to build on the party’s successes but at the same time drew attention to his consensual leadership style and preference for teamwork over centralized power. He promised to foster a better investment climate and bring inflation under control by gradually reducing the budget deficit.

Momentum Shift

Scioli was unable to unglue himself from Fernández, however. His ability to criticize her style and politics was limited by his need for her support. And moves like his seemingly forced choice of a close Fernández advisor as his Vice President led many to wonder if Fernández intended to remain a shadow President after leaving office.

Momentum shifted toward Macri, who promised a clean break from the politics and style of the last 12 years, so Scioli poured his energy into drawing a clear line between himself and his rival. In doing so, he allied himself with Fernández and the Front for Victory’s ideologues. This, analysts say, has been counterproductive.

“A lot of voters wanted change, but not totally; Scioli represented this with a new leadership style,” says Mariel Fornoni, director of the polling company Management and Fit. “But when he left the new style behind, he turned into a continuity candidate and Macri became the change candidate.”

Some polls now give Macri, 56, a comfortable lead over Scioli. To reverse this, Scioli has engaged in a so-called “fear” campaign that mirrors Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s successful strategy in a run-off vote last year. Scioli has been aggressively trying to link Macri to unpopular free-market policies that many Argentines blame for the 2001 collapse.

“The word ‘change’ may generate enthusiasm and motivate people,” Scioli said in a Nov. 15 television debate between the two candidates, “But when you remove its veil, this appears: the free market, structural adjustment, devaluation and debt.”

Although Macri has largely tiptoed around the reforms he would make, they could include devaluing the peso; lifting currency controls; and reducing transport and energy subsidies.

“Such structural adjustment is truly scary,” says Alberto Pérez, a top Scioli adviser, referring to the likelihood of swift reforms that would be painful for Argentines in the short term.

Still, to the surprise of many, the broader mood of the nation now favors Macri.

“Satisfaction with the current administration is so strained,” says Federico Finchelstein, an Argentine historian at the New School for Social Research in New York, “that the hope of change is greater than the fear of what could happen.”

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