Shadow Government

After a Century, the Center-Right Returns to Argentina

Is Mauricio Macri's victory the end of 100 years of failed governance?

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For the first time in 100 years, an elected center-right political party will be governing Argentina. Not coincidentally, it’s been about 100 years since Argentina was considered among the 10 richest countries in the world. But ever since the government of Roque Saénz Peña was voted out in 1916, Argentines have chosen — or had chosen for them — parties from the left and center-left, as well as military governments and seemingly endless varietals of Peronism, the party that gives populism a bad name and turns rich countries into poor ones. The latest varietal — Kirchnerismo — died on Sunday night, with the defeat of Daniel Scioli, former President Nestor Kirchner’s Vice President and President Cristina Kirchner’s chosen successor.

Instead, Argentines have chosen Mauricio Macri and his Cambiemos party. According to preliminary results Macri beat Scioli 51 to 49 percent, after trailing him in the first round 34 to 37 percent. As in the first round, Macri drew his strongest support from the geographical center of the country, especially vote-rich Cordoba and the city of Buenos Aires. However, the second time around he also picked up three more interior provinces, and the northern province of Jujuy. Scioli won in the rural (and less populated) north and south and hung on to Buenos Aires province. Though in a humiliating slap, Scioli lost in the precinct where the Kirchner family casts their ballots.

Macri’s solid victory is bad news for Argentina’s neighbors on the left, whose leaders enthusiastically supported Scioli. Macri has promised to force Mercosur (the Southern Hemisphere trade block) to denounce President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela for the jailing of opposition leader Leopoldo López. Evo Morales of Bolivia recently told a French newspaper that if Macri won “there would be conflicts.” On Cuba, Macri said last week that if the Cuban government did not continue opening up (in accordance with its normalization of ties with the United States), his government would be just as critical as it would be towards Venezuela. “We want to seriously defend democratic values,” Macri declared.

Macri’s foreign policy also will be more cooperative with Europe and the United States. In a wide-ranging interview last month, Fulvio Pompeo, Macri’s chief foreign policy advisor, said Macri would end the “demagogic” relationships common under the Kirchners. For example, Macri is likely to drop the “Malvinas” (Falklands) cabinet level minister appointed by Cristina Kirchner in 2013. “The relationship with Great Britain is very important to us,” Pompeo told the Daily Telegraph, “and we will work to create different possible areas for constructive dialogue between our countries.” And it’s not just Britain. “Argentina will change its way of relating to the world,” said Pompeo. “In the last few years historically-good relations have deteriorated with countries such as the USA, the EU — countries with whom we share values, economic interests and cultural friendships.”

It’s not immediately clear what Macri intends to do to right Argentine’s listing economy. During the campaign he proclaimed three “dream” domestic priorities: 1) eliminating poverty, 2) eliminating drug trafficking, and 3) unifying Argentines. He also has said he will appoint an economics minister with a “development profile.” But aside from promising to get rid of currency exchange controls and allowing the peso to float, he has been vague on the subjects of investment and growth. According to one expert, Macri’s biggest challenge will be to improve infrastructure and security in the country’s poorest neighborhoods, many of which don’t have sewage or water services. These pockets of grinding poverty are fertile breeding grounds for crime and the drug trade.

Macri and his family are long-time public figures in Argentina. His father, Francisco Macri, is a deal maker who has had on-again, off-again successes in construction and real estate in Argentina and the United States — including a 1985 deal in which he was forced to unload an Upper West Side apartment building project to Donald Trump. (In The Art of the Deal Trump talks at length about the transaction, recounting how Macri was “a wonderful man” but a terrible negotiator, that is, compared to you-know-who.) Francisco Macri’s highly visible wealth made his family vulnerable to the quintessential Latin American growth industry of the 80s and 90s: kidnapping for ransom. So Mauricio Macri’s debut as a public figure was as a hostage for two weeks in 1991, a harrowing experience he credits for his eventual turn to politics.

Later Macri worked for his father in the construction business, including a stint in Venezuela. In 1995 he became manager of Boca Juniors, Argentina’s premier soccer club. Under Macri’s management Boca won 16 national and international titles. From a publicity standpoint, managing Boca in Argentina is akin to managing the Yankees (love them or hate them, everyone knows who they are), so Macri was well positioned to win his race for mayor of Buenos Aires in 2007, and reelection in 2011.

Macri, 56, now has a tough to-do list. Restoring confidence in the economy, improving services in the poorest and most dangerous barrios, and getting Argentina back into the world’s good graces will be hard after 12 years of the Kirchners, and after 100 years of national governments that have run the gamut from bad to worse.

EMILIANO LASALVIA/AFP/Getty Images

Richard G. Miles is the director of the U.S.-Mexico Futures Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 2007 to 2008, he handled Mexican affairs on the U.S. National Security Council staff.

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