Argentina

Change to the Right

Print edition : December 25, 2015

Mauricio Macri, president-elect, seen on a screen at his campaign headquarters in Buenos Aires on November 22. Photo: Axel Indik/Bloomberg

Daniel Scioli of the ruling Front for Victory party during the closing rally of his campaign, which ended in defeat, in Buenos Aires on October 22. Photo: EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP

Outgoing President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner arrives at a polling station in Rio Gallegos, Santa Cruz province, during the presidential election on October 25. Photo: Walter Diaz/AFP

After more than a decade of Peronist left-wing rule, Argentinians, in a surprise move, pick multimillionaire businessman Mauricio Macri as President at a difficult time for the country.

THE surprise victory of the multimillionaire businessman Mauricio Macri in the presidential elections in Argentina on November 22 marks a comeback for the Right in the country’s politics after a long gap. Macri won narrowly, getting just 51 per cent of the votes polled. He will be taking over a highly polarised nation. All the same, the result is being viewed as a setback not only for Argentinians but also for the Left in the entire region. It is for the first time in 15 years that an incumbent left-wing government has been defeated. Parliamentary and local elections are due in Venezuela in the first week of December, and the right-wing parties there will no doubt feel enthused by the defeat of the Left in Argentina.

The losing candidate of the ruling Front for Victory party, Daniel Scioli, was handpicked by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to succeed her. The left-wing faction of the Peronists have been in power since 2003, when Nestor Kirchner was elected President. His wife, Cristina, succeeded him in 2007. She could not run again due to constitutionally mandated term limits. Scioli’s defeat was especially surprising because Cristina and her social empowerment policies were popular with the masses. Scioli, like Macri, comes from a privileged background. Both of them are also sport enthusiasts. Macri ran one of the most popular football clubs, Boca Juniors, while Scioli was a champion speedboat racer.

The Kirchners had rescued Argentina from an economic morass and raised the standard of living of the poor. Some of the tough decisions they took to tackle the recession and generate employment earned them powerful enemies among the Argentinian elite. During their rule, they were among the steadfast supporters of the Cuban revolution. They also stood solidly behind Venezuela as it withstood the United States’ attempts at destabilisation. In the last 13 years under the Kirchners, poverty fell by around 70 per cent and extreme poverty fell by almost 80 per cent. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), unemployment figures during the period had fallen to 6.9 per cent from a high of 17.2 per cent.

But the last couple of years were not too good for the Argentine economy as prices of commodities fell globally. The Argentine economy had come to depend a lot on commodity exports, which were hit badly because of the global economic slowdown. For the past four years, economic growth has been less than 2 per cent. Inflation had become a problem yet again with the dollar selling high on the black market. There were also reports of corrupt activities by senior officials in the Kirchner government.

Man for the moment

Macri and his centre-right Let’s Change party, with the help of a skilful campaign strategist brought from outside, managed to convince a significant section of the electorate that he was the man who could turn things around. On the campaign trail, Macri, who was the mayor of Buenos Aires, portrayed himself as a populist in the Peronist mould. During the course of the campaign, he even unveiled a statue of Juan Peron, the former President and founder of the Peronist movement.

Eventually, it was a split in the Peronist movement that helped him win. Scioli, the official Peronist candidate, could have won in the first round itself but for the presence of a dissident Peronist, Sergio Massa, in the field. A candidate needed only 45 per cent of the votes polled to be elected in the first round itself. Scioli came out on top in the first round, but Massa came a close third with 20 per cent of the votes.

In the final round, too, many right-wing Peronists preferred to vote for Macri. Historically, there have been right- and left-wing streams in the Peronist movement. Carlos Menem, though nominally a Peronist, ushered in neoliberal programmes during his presidency. Macri, the candidate of the centre right, assured the electorate that he would not slash social spending or end anti-poverty programmes that the left-wing government had launched after it came to power in 2003. The poor in Argentina, like their compatriots in Brazil and some other Latin American countries, are dependent on government cash subsidies for survival. Macri also promised not to privatise big state-owned companies such as the national airline and YPF, the country’s biggest oil company.

But there already is growing pressure from the private sector in Argentina and the West to roll back many of the reforms initiated in the last 13 years. One of Macri’s favourite books is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. The book is an ode to the capitalist way of life. Macri had previously said that he was against the government playing a role in promoting industries and had proposed tax cuts for the rich. This could mean that very soon there could be cuts in social spending as the budget will have to be trimmed. Almost immediately after the results were announced, Macri started showing his true conservative colours. There are strong indications that he may have a rethink on the continuation of human rights trials pertaining to the murderous military rule from 1976-83. Many senior army officers, including a former military ruler, have been sent to prison for their role in the thousands of disappearances and murders that characterised that period. Macri and his supporters prefer “reconciliation” to trials. Reconciliation, as has been witnessed in countries like South Africa, is another word for forgive and forget.

Foreign policy shift

Macri has said that under his presidency there will be a shift in the country’s foreign policy. In the last 13 years, Argentina was part of the progressive bloc of nations in the region. The “pink tide” that swept Latin America at the beginning of the last decade brought to power left-wing governments. Only a few countries like Colombia continued to remain in the orbit of the U.S. Macri evidently wants to take Argentina back under the U.S.’ foreign policy tutelage. Immediately after being elected, he told the media that one of his priorities would be to improve relations with the U.S. He will need help to negotiate with foreign creditors who have sued Argentina in U.S. courts for unpaid debt. Vulture funds have prevented 90 per cent of Argentina’s creditors from being paid after they got a ruling from a New York court in their favour.

There are strong indications that Macri will help Washington push its hegemonic agenda in the region. He may also soft pedal on the “Malvinas” (Falkland) island dispute with Britain in his bid to improve relations with the West. The Kirchner government had taken a tough line on the subject, calling it an issue of decolonisation and raised the issue in the United Nations Security Council. Argentina and Britain had fought a short but bitter war over the islands in the 1980s. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. was looking forward to working with Macri “to promote regional security and prosperity and to enhance human development and human rights”.

Targeting Venezuela

Macri told the media in Buenos Aires at his first press conference after the election results were put out that he would try to get Venezuela ejected from the Common Market of the South (Mercosur) regional trade grouping on the grounds that the government in Caracas was infringing on the democratic rights of the people. Macri’s statement came just a fortnight before Venezuela was scheduled to go to polls. Venezuela is the only country in the region that holds elections almost on a yearly basis with observers from around the world present. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa said that the Argentine leader’s remarks were a “clear interference in the internal affairs of Venezuela”. Macri is a committed ally of the right-wing opposition in Venezuela.

The President-elect hinted that he would also review a contract signed with China to build a nuclear power station. Macri also seems keen to undermine his country’s relations with Iran. The Argentine government had signed an agreement with Iran to investigate jointly the bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires in 1994. Without providing any proof, the Israeli government and its supporters in the Western media alleged that the terror attack, which killed 85 people, was ordered at the highest level of the Iranian government. There were attempts by Cristina Kirchner’s opponents to link her government with an alleged “cover-up” of the incident.

Reacting to the Macri’s statements, Cristina Kirchner observed that the “person with the responsibility of leading the homeland should know the right place for the Argentine republic in a multipolar world”. Cristina Kirchner will, in all probability, continue to play a leading role in the politics of the country. She will continue to remain the pre-eminent Peronist leader.

“I won’t be President after December 10, but I will always be there for the people when I’m needed,” she recently told thousands of her cheering supporters. Argentinians call her their most charismatic politician since the time of the legendary Eva Peron. Despite the opposition victory in the presidential election, the Peronists continue to have a decisive say in the country’s politics. They have the majority in the Senate, the largest presence in the Lower House of Parliament and the governorship in 15 out of 24 provinces in the country. In recent history, no non-Peronist President in Argentina has managed to complete his term in office.

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