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Is Argentina’s Presidential Frontrunner the Next Hero of Latin America’s Left?

Is Argentina’s Presidential Frontrunner the Next Hero of Latin America’s Left?

Daniel Scioli, who won the most votes on Aug. 10 in the first round of Argentina’s presidential primaries, is the apparent favorite of Latin America’s left-wing leaders to succeed President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The day after Scioli’s initial victory, at an executive session in Caracas of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America – Peoples’ Trade Agreement (ALBA-TCP) — the left’s answer to free trade in the Americas — Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro praised Scioli’s initial victory as a continuation of the Kirchners’ legacy. Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, lauded the primary results as evidence that “Kirchnerismo will win again.” In a July visit to Cuba, Scioli was warmly received by Raúl Castro, who he praised for his “positive influence.” Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva, returning to campaign mode, said he was “pumped for Scioli to win the elections.” Most recently, Scioli (currently the governor of Buenos Aires province) rolled out the red carpet for a one-day visit to the capital by President Evo Morales of Bolivia. Scioli’s Facebook page featured the two attending campaign style events and the two — with more enthusiasm than style — playing soccer together.

What do these leaders see in Scioli? Is the former vice president, as they imagine, a third Kirchner, willing to continue statist policies and an increasingly hostile attitude towards a free press? Or, is he a kinder, gentler Peronist, as the international press would like to believe? Reuters has called him “moderate” and the The Economist and The Guardian have tagged him as a “centrist.” Does Scioli want a replay of 12 years of Kirchner confrontation or does he seek to improve Argentina’s image among international investors and creditors?

The problem is, no one really knows. Scioli, is still viewed as a cipher by many Argentines, a man who will try to please everyone. Over the years the former speedboat champion (who lost an arm during a 1990 race) has cultivated a daring, playboy charm, despite his middle class origins. Scioli’s grandfather owned a hardware store that his father expanded into an appliance store. The business went bankrupt in 1995. When Scioli’s brother José was kidnapped by left-wing guerillas in 1977, Daniel, only 18-years old, negotiated his brother’s ransom and release. He has been married on and off and on again to a former model, and in 1990 was forced to legally recognize an out-of-wedlock daughter — now 38 years old — who now accompanies her father to events and has been dubbed “the princess of Buenos Aires.”

Scioli has a hard time choosing who he wants to be and how he wants to be seen. He built an indoor soccer facility in Buenos Aires that prominently displays wax figures of “world leaders” including Che Guevara and Winston Churchill; a pairing unlikely to occur to most people. In 2014 he said he wanted to “normalize our relationship with international markets,” but last June he called Argentina’s creditors “vulture funds.” After his primary victory, he said, “We will go out to the world and look for investment. ” But then he picked as his running mate Carlos Zannini, who as Cristina’s legal secretary engineered the 2012 forced take over of YPF, a Spanish owned oil company. Three days before playing footsie with Evo Morales, Scioli visited a Dow Chemical plant in Bahía Blanca accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Noah Mamet. “Dow’s continued investment,” he said, “is very important to us.”

“What of the center, what of the right,” Scioli asked rhetorically the day after his initial victory. “I will do “the right thing.” Scioli may win the next vote on Oct. 25 or he may be forced into a runoff. The continent will have to wait a while longer as to whether Scioli defines the “right thing” as left or center.

JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images