Close to ten o’clock on Sunday 22nd November, with only 60 per cent of all balloting stations tallied, the ruling party candidate, Daniel Scioli, conceded defeat as he called Mauricio Macri to offer his congratulations on winning the Argentine general election. In the first-ever presidential runoff election in Argentina, Mr. Macri became the new president of the country’s 43 million citizens. Compulsory voting brought the voter turnout to a record of 81 percent. With a narrow margin, Mr. Macri, mayor the City of Buenos Aires, won the election with 51.4 percent of the vote, against 48.6 percent for Mr. Scioli, a “Peronist” and former vice president who was endorsed by current president Cristina Kirchner.
Mr. Macri has promised change, and his message worked well. Shaking the political landscape, these results bring an official end to twelve years of “Kirchnerismo,” the political movement named after the power couple of President Cristina Kirchner and her late husband, Néstor Kirchner. For eight years Cristina Kirchner has captivated, irritated, and divided Argentineans. Strong leadership will define her position in history as one of Argentina’s most popular presidents, but the results show that her people became tired of a combative style, characterized by suppression of dissidents and executive overreach.
Mr. Marci ran under the banner of Cambiemos (“Let’s Change”), a coalition that consists of his Republican Proposal Party and other mostly centrist non-Peronist parties. Compared to most politicians of the region, Macri’s path to politics is an unusual one. He started as a successful businessman who gained fame by running Boca Juniors, one of the most popular soccer team in Argentina. This popularity helped him get elected to Congress in 2007. He was then elected mayor of the City Buenos Aires, Argentina’s richest and most populous city, for two consecutive terms. Citizens agree that his success did not come from personal charisma. Instead, he drew voters with his preference for dialogue and consensus. He presents himself as a team-builder whose pragmatic ideology is to “resolve problems and get things done”.
The country Mr. Macri will inherit
As Ms. Kirchner slips out of office, Mr. Macri will inherit a stagnant economy with a 25 percent inflation rate and a 65 percent gap between the official value of the peso and the “blue-dollar” (i.e., black-market) exchange rate. Currency controls, export taxes, and trade restrictions, which Kirchner imposed in 2011, are choking productivity, reducing exports, and depleting foreign reserves. In addition, Argentina’s fiscal deficit this year will total 7.2 percent of GDP, the highest since 1982 when a military dictatorship was in power. At the same time, Argentina cannot seek external financing until it ends its dispute with creditors who have rejected a proposed debt-restructuring plan.
While promising change, Mr. Macri has also convinced voters that this change should not be too abrupt. He wants to work to find a solution with the US hedge fund creditors, a situation that has led to Argentina technically being in default. He has also promised to end exchange controls, but has vowed not to undo the nationalization of pension funds or of YPF, Argentina’s leading energy company, and not to alter current welfare programs. In addition, he wants to get rid of capital controls and to make Argentina a prime destination for foreign investors. That is why his surprisingly strong performance in the first round of the election had Argentina’s financial markets moving up.
At the same time, the new president faces major challenges. He leads a diverse and untested opposition alliance, lacks a congressional majority, and faces a league of primarily Peronist governors with whom he will now need to negotiate. If he succeeds, Mr. Macri will become the first non-Peronist president to serve a full term in office.
A mirror to the future of Latin America?
Sunday’s results are also significant on another level and may also have significance beyond Argentina’s borders. Mr. Macri was critical of the Kirchner’s government’s foreign policy, which can be described as hostile. This has left Argentina very isolated, with the late Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela as its closest allies. This chapter in Argentina’s history seems to be coming to a close. Moreover, along with the weakness of Dilma Rousseff government in Brazil, the uncertain Venezuelan elections in December, the Bolivian referendum next February, and the adjustments in Ecuador, the changes occurring in Argentina may be a mirror to the future of Latin America.
In relation to South America’s economic and political blocs, the new president’s first move seems to be regarding Venezuela. Mr. Macri has declared he will end Ms. Kirchner’s close political alliance with Venezuela’s populist leftist regime. During the last presidential debate he even said that he would call for Venezuela’s “suspension” from Mercosur — the continent’s economic alliance made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela — for not complying with the group’s clause requiring all member countries to abide by democratic principles. Along this same line, Mr. Macri has opposed efforts by leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales to rig his own re-election. Macri has argued that changes of power are good for building strong institutions.
Mr. Macri has stated that his first priority will be forging a strategic alliance with Brazil and start unity talks with the Mexico-Colombia-Peru-Chile Pacific Alliance bloc. Until now, Argentina under Ms. Kirchner has been opposed to integration with this bloc, siding with Venezuela’s claim that the Pacific Alliance is too friendly with “U.S. imperialism.”
Regarding ties with the United States, Macri has said that he would rebuild bilateral relations, which were severely damaged by Ms. Kirchner’s anti-US rhetoric. The first area in which he proposed to forge closer ties with Washington will be in the war on drugs. A Macri government will significantly tone down Argentina’s recent history of anti-U.S. rhetoric.
A breath of fresh air
In view of Mr. Macri’s promises to move forward in strengthening democratic institutions and the rule of law, Argentina has an opportunity for a new start in 2016. “Today is a historic day, it’s the changing of a new era which is going to be marvelous” Mr. Macri said from his campaign headquarters Sunday night to thousands of cheering supporters. Last night we saw a confident and energized leader who promised “Together, we can create the Argentina we dream about”, bringing a breath of renewed hope to millions of Argentineans.