Argentina opposition eyes chance to win presidency after 12 years

A win by Mauricio Macri would set the country’s spluttering economy on a more free-market course

Opposition presidential candidate Mauricio Macri votes during the runoff presidential election in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sunday. Photograph: Natacha Pisarenko/AP

Opposition presidential candidate Mauricio Macri votes during the runoff presidential election in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sunday. Photograph: Natacha Pisarenko/AP

 

Argentines voted on Sunday in a run-off election that hands the centre-right opposition, led by Mauricio Macri, its best chance in more than a decade to wrest the presidency from the populist Peronists.

A win by Mr Macri would set Argentina’s spluttering economy on a more free-market course that he promises would rebuild investor confidence.

Outgoing president Cristina Fernandez, who was preceded in office by her late husband Nestor Kirchner, is as revered by the poor for her generous welfare programmes as she is reviled by business for the strict controls the couple put on the economy during their 12 years in power.

Barred from seeking a third straight term, she will leave office next month with Argentina deeply divided between those who back her protectionist policies and defense of workers’ rights and those who back the opposition’s open-market policies.

In a sign of Argentines’ weariness with a stagnant economy and high inflation, Ms Fernandez’s candidate, Daniel Scioli, lost his front-runner status after the October 25th first-round vote when Mr Macri unexpectedly came in right on his heels.

Macri, the two-term mayor of Buenos Aires and scion of a wealthy family, developed a comfortable lead in opinion polls ahead of Argentina’s first ever run-off. But with one in 10 voters undecided, Mr Scioli cannot be counted out.

“I’ll probably end up voting Macri,” said Francisco Laura, an elderly priest, as polling stations opened. “This government’s management of the economy has been a disaster, and it’s aligned us with countries like Venezuela and Iran. ”

Whoever is sworn in on December 10th will inherit a yawning fiscal deficit that Ms Fernandez has financed by printing pesos, contributing to double digit inflation. Foreign reserves are at a nine-year low and the country has been shut out of the global bond market due to a festering sovereign default.

Mr Macri wants to open Latin America’s No. 3 economy to more investment by lifting currency and trade controls, but will also have to put accounts in order after eight years of free-spending populism under Ms Fernandez.

Mr Scioli, seen as more of a moderate than Ms Fernandez, says he would be flexible in adjusting macro-economic policy while standing by the poor.

Mr Macri has accused Mr Scioli, the governor of Buenos Aires province, of fear-mongering in ads claiming that he would scrap welfare programs. Scioli says it is Macri’s planned spending cuts that create anxiety. Each accuses the other of lying.

Scarred by the economic collapse in 2001 that tossed millions into poverty, many Argentines fear any dramatic shift in policy could make things worse.

“I’m not crazy about Scioli, but I’m going to vote for him because Macri’s policies would let too many foreign goods into the country, and that would be bad for local industry,” said Cristina Castillo, a 53-year-old Buenos Aires psychologist.

“Reading between the lines, it’s clear Macri wants a drastic fiscal adjustment,” she added.

A new fiscal policy is exactly what investors want, along with the lifting of currency controls and a solution to a marathon legal battle with bondholders over unpaid debt stemming from Argentina’s record default in 2002.

The local Merval stock index has shot up 25 per cent since Mr Macri’s muscular performance in the first round, as investors factored in the possibility he will win the run-off and free up markets by dismantling currency and trade controls.

Ms Fernandez, who often cites her late husband as her guiding light appealed to voters to ensure that public funding of education, healthcare and programs for poor mothers remains.

“When I leave, please God, I don’t want to see ruined what it took us years to build!” she shouted to cheering and sobbing supporters at a recent rally.

Reuters