The night of November 22 2015, Mauricio Macri, the recently elected president of Argentina, addressed his enthusiastic supporters: “Today, with your vote, you made the impossible possible…I’m here because of you, so I ask you to please not abandon me.” And on last Sunday’s PASO elections (Open, Simultaneous and Mandatory Primaries), voters answered his call in a much-needed show of strength amidst economic hardship.
Argentina’s PASO are mandatory for all citizens aged 18-70 years old. Their purpose is to define the candidates who will compete in October’s midterm legislative elections. Those elections will renew almost half of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and a third of the seats in the Senate (if a party does not hold primaries, it must still compete in the PASO and receive at least 1.5% of valid votes to be on the ballot). The PASO also serve to measure parties’ standing with voters. The results of Sunday’s primaries were clear: voters supported the ruling Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition in large numbers, marking a direct split with a not-so-distant past in which the Kirchner’s and allies governed the executive and had a near lock on the national legislature for 12 years.
At the national level, Cambiemos led preferences with 35.9 percent of votes. The Kirchneristas, led by former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner landed in second place with 20.3 percent of votes. Further behind was the Partido Justicialista, or non-Kirchnerite Peronists, with 17.1 percent and the Massistas—another Peronist alternative led by former deputy and chief of staff to Fernández, Sergio Massa—with 7.4 percent of votes. Voter turnout was approximately 72.3 percent of eligible voters, remaining almost identical to the one observed in the 2015 PASO.
The PASO results are a remarkable achievement for Macri considering the austerity measures that his government has implemented while facing a rigid opposition. The Kirchneristas tried to take advantage of the backlash Macri received for his unpopular fiscal policies and turned the election into a plebiscite on his government’s course of action. The plan failed. Former president Cristina Fernández Kirchner landed in second place for a seat in the Senate representing Buenos Aires—falling slightly behind the Macri-backed, Education Minister Esteban Bullrich, with 34.11 percent and 34.19 percent of votes, respectively (with 95.7 percent of votes accounted for). Thus, Sunday’s results give Macri some breathing room as he continues to try to address the economic problems he inherited from the fiscally profligate, protectionist, and inflationary Kirchner policies.
Mauricio Macri: from an unlikely candidate to Argentina’s President-Elect
The Macri presidency was something that most pollsters overlooked back in 2015. Macri, a playboy turned politician—who in 1991 was kidnapped and held for ransom—was a successful businessman before entering politics. As chairman of Boca Juniors, one of Argentina’s largest football teams, from 1995 to 2007 and briefly in 2008, Macri gained popularity as he oversaw a series of local and international championships.
Though his political career has roots in Peronism—the movement created by Juan Domingo Perón—Macri distanced himself early on from Argentina’s powerful, heterogeneous party. In 2005, he ran as a member of the center-right Recrear para el Crecimiento (Recreate for Growth), and was elected deputy for Buenos Aires with 33.9 percent of votes. And in 2007 he was elected mayor of the City of Buenos Aires as a member of Propuesta Republicana (Republican Proposition), being re-elected in 2010 in a second round vote with 64.3 percent. His administration oversaw improvements in public transportation and police reforms, as well as more progressive policies—such as not opposing same-sex marriage, eventually leading to Argentina becoming Latin America’s first country to legalize same-sex marriage. The then-mayor’s decision to remain silent on the same-sex marriage issue sparked public encounters between Macri and Archbishop Jorge Bergolio, currently Pope Francis.
From his initial success in Buenos Aires, a traditional stronghold of Peronism, Macri emerged as a key opposition figure to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Still, Macri’s victory in 2015 seemed unlikely. Most pollsters predicted an easy triumph for the incumbent, Daniel Scioli, Vice President to Néstor from 2003 to 2007 and Governor of the Buenos Aires Province from 2007 to 2015. However, much to everyone’s surprise, Macri landed in second place, with 34.2 percent of the national vote, close behind Scioli’s 37.1 percent. The thin margin of barely 837,386 votes that separated both candidates in the first round translated into a triumph for Macri, and a defeat for Scioli. The election results forced the first run-off election in the country’s history, in which Macri’s momentum grew, leading to his election with 51.3 percent of the vote—abruptly ending 12-consecutive years of Kirchner governments.
The costs (and benefits) of running a Peronist-worn country
Despite his unexpected win, Macri’s triumph was a tenuous one. He had defeated the incumbent coalition by only 602,507 votes in the run-off, a small margin in a universe of 32 million voters. Moreover, the former businessman and his allies controlled a minority of seats in Congress: 35 percent in the lower house—90 seats out of 257—and 22 percent in the Senate—16 seats from a total of 72.
Argentina’s stagnant economy—inherited from Fernández—rapidly became a priority for Macri. Though the Kirchners oversaw the successful stabilization and initial expansion of Argentina’s economy after the 2001 Corralito Crisis—in which GDP growth shrank by 11 percent in 2002 alone—Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s second government was less successful in continuing the economic boom. From 2011 to 2015, Argentina’s economy grew at 1.5 percent average—experiencing a recession in of -1 percent in 2012 and -2.5 percent in 2014, as the global commodity markets—on which the government had bet its fortune—contracted and the economic distortions created by government policies began to take a toll.
Yet, it was inflation that became a persistent inconvenience and the biggest problem for Argentineans. With a mean inflation rate of 10.2 percent from 2011 to 2013, Fernández de Kirchner was unable to rein in the country’s devaluing currency. Trying to hide the mounting inflation rate, the government tampered with the books to conceal how much citizens’ currency was decreasing in value. Even the former Minister of Economy, Hernán Lorenzino, in an embarrassing interview, was unable to give an exact inflation figure. As a result, the opposition in Congress—now in office—began publishing its inflation calculations.
To tackle high inflation and stagnant economic growth, Macri implemented a series of macroeconomic policies. One of his first policies was to liberalize the dollar. Argentina’s currency exchange control, implemented in 2011, limited the purchase of dollars—which in turn led to the rise of its black market. Until recently, it was common to find the dollar blue listed alongside the official exchange rate. Macri’s government has also led efforts to lower tariffs, pay its vulture funds, and sell $2.75 billion of 100-year bonds—the largest in the country’s history. Yet, one of his most criticized policies was to end government subsidies for gas, water and public transportation that increased prices by 300 percent for consumers. Understandably those consumers turned their anger toward the government protesting in the streets. The protests peaked during the months of March and April this year, as the country’s powerful labor unions called for the first 24-hour general strike of Macri’s presidency. Though the protests have quieted-down since, the country remains polarized as the opposition accuses the government of implementing neoliberal policies, blaming them for the country’s economic troubles.
Unfortunately for Macri, the promised return to economic growth has not materialized as quickly as expected. In 2016, Argentina’s economy contracted by -2.3 percent while inflation was estimated to have reached 40 percent. This year, though, there was some light on the horizon. During the first quarter of 2017, Argentina’s economy grew 0.3 percent in comparison from a year earlier and 1.1 percent from the previous quarter. Likewise, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects that the government’s policies will result in an annual 3 percent growth during the next five years.
In a country that has often fallen for short-term populist promises, for now voters have chosen to reward a government that is offering long-term solutions. Sunday’s primary results show that Argentineans are willing to experience further economic hardship, thus rejecting a potential return to populism.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD student in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on Twitter @lucasperello