Argentina’s political plates shift as Peronists face presidential run-off defeat

Opposition leader Mauricio Macri holds an ample lead ahead of Sunday’s election

Opposition leader Mauricio Macri during his closing campaign rally in Hamahuaca. He is expected to become the first right-wing politician to be elected Argentina’s president. Photograph: Frente Cambiemos/EPA

Opposition leader Mauricio Macri during his closing campaign rally in Hamahuaca. He is expected to become the first right-wing politician to be elected Argentina’s president. Photograph: Frente Cambiemos/EPA

 

Argentina stands on the verge of a seismic political shift this weekend. Opinion polls in the South American country show opposition leader Mauricio Macri holding a comfortable lead over the ruling Peronist party’s candidate Daniel Scioli heading into tomorrow’s final round of a presidential election.

Should Macri manage to transform his lead in the polls into victory at the ballot box, he will become the first right-wing politician to be elected president in a country dominated by populists and generals during the last century.

Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires city, has gained momentum since coming second to Scioli, governor of the province of Buenos Aires, in last month’s first round. He has successfully managed to portray his opponent – a friend for 30 years – as tainted by his backing from President Cristina Kirchner.

Despite a deepening recession, she still boasts a high personal approval rating. However, her combative style has after eight years in power left many Argentines yearning for a change. Last month more than 60 per cent voted for politicians advocating a new political direction; Macri is, according to polls, now poised to win the support of a majority of those whose candidate were eliminated on the first round.

Crucially, one poll shows him set to win the backing of 68 per cent of those who voted for Sergio Massa, who came third last month with 21 per cent of the vote. A dissident Peronist who, after breaking with Kirchner, became one of the most vocal critics of corruption within her inner circle, Massa has refused to endorse either candidate in the run-off.

In the last month, however, he has made a series of disparaging remarks about Scioli, labelling him the candidate of “impunity”, while several of his key lieutenants have all but called on his supporters to back Macri. In a bid to wrestle back the initiative, Scioli has ditched his reputation as an amiable politician in Argentina’s cut-throat political culture and gone negative.

As the campaign reaches its climax, he is relentlessly warning that should his opponent win, he would implement a brutal economic adjustment that would hit the poor hardest. Such an argument should likely win him the backing of the poorest Argentines, who make up the base of Kirchner’s support. His message carries less impact with a sceptical middle class which is fed up with rampant inflation, the collapse in economic growth and restrictive currency controls.

However, in a country still scarred by its failed neoliberal experiment in the 1990s, the power of Scioli’s negative message cannot be underestimated.

Undermining Scioli’s fightback is his confusion about how to respond to his failure to win the contest outright on the first round, a debacle that included his party’s losing control of the province he governed for the last eight years.

Kirchner has maintained a low profile since then. It is not clear if this is because Scioli is afraid that being associated with her will alienate undecideds in the middle class or her fear that the end of her family’s 12 years in power could be associated with his possible defeat.

While the first election of a right-wing politician as president tomorrow though would be of enormous symbolic significance, in reality the two candidates have much in common. During the race both signalled to investors that they recognised that the Kirchner economic model is broken, with dwindling foreign reserves evidence that the country is fast running out of cash and some form of adjustment will be necessary.

Macri is also closer to Peronism than many of his supporters would care to admit. He almost launched his political career under the party’s banner and remains close to several of Peronism’s powerful regional barons.

His reputation as a liberal businessman is also overblown. His career before politics largely took place in his father’s industrial conglomerate which, like many of the country’s biggest economic groups, owes its size and influence as much to political connections as business acumen, the inevitable result of Argentina’s protectionist economy. A Macri victory would be quietly welcomed by several neighbouring left-wing governments.

The Kirchners have always been populist nationalists rather than leftists and their policies have frustrated the left-wing administrations in Uruguay and Brazil. Their governments could see an end of Peronist rule as a chance to lift arbitrary restrictions on their countries’ exports to Argentina in defiance of the rules of Mercosur, while boosting the chances of the trade bloc concluding a wide-ranging trade deal with the EU.

Brazil in particular is increasingly desperate for such an accord in order to help drag its economy out of recession, but the instinctively protectionist Kirchner has vetoed the bloc reaching a deal before now.

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