Conservative challenger Mauricio Macri wins in Argentina: Will he be Carlos Menem or Charlie Baker?

In 2014, Massachusetts, a liberal state, elected Republican businessman Charlie Baker to be its governor over Martha Coakley, an establishment Democrat who had underperformed in previous statewide races, by a razor-thin margin. On a related note, yesterday Argentina elected Mauricio Macri, conservative Mayor of Buenos Aires and President of Boca Juniors, the country’s best soccer club, to be its next president — also by less than five percent.

Macri defeated Daniel Scioli of the incumbent Frente para la Victoria (FpV), winning with just over 51 percent of the vote to Scioli’s 48 percent. Macri rode a wave of momentum he carried from the first round of the election, in which he outperformed expectations and nearly tied Scioli, who had been favored to win the most votes and perhaps even secure a runoff-proof plurality. However, Scioli failed to consolidate support on his left flank following the first round, with fellow Peronist candidate Sergio Massa and Progressive candidate Margarita Stolbitzer both publicly saying that they weren’t sure they could bring themselves to vote for him in the runoff.

The Massachusetts race seems relevant because, as I’ve watched the election unfold since coming to Argentina, it feels like the most analogous US race to the one that just concluded here. Like Massachusetts, Argentina’s median voter is to the left of center. Like Martha Coakley, Daniel Scioli was a longtime party veteran who ran a lazy, entitled campaign — Coakley made headlines for refusing to shake hands with voters at the 2010 Winter Classic hockey game; Scioli showed up to cast his ballot in the first round on October 25th wearing ripped jeans and a biker jacket. Like Charlie Baker, Macri played up his business credentials and avoided discussion of his (and his party’s) wacky ideas on social issues while promising to leave in place many of the incumbent party’s more popular policies.

Like Baker, Macri seems well aware of the fact that his victory is less about him and more about his opponent. Or, rather, his opponent’s party. Argentina’s current president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, has seen her popularity wane recently as her party has been rocked by scandals and charges of corruption, ranging from high-ranking party officials being involved in drug trafficking to possibly arranging the murder of an independent prosecutor who had accused Kirchner of covering up Iran’s involvement in a 1994 terrorist attack in exchange for cheap oil. Perhaps even more importantly, Argentina is in a state of economic crisis, with double-digit inflation — and Kirchner’s government has been accused of manipulating official data to downplay its severity. (Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick does not line up with Kirchner in this analogy).

During the campaign, Scioli seemed willing but unable to effectively distance himself from Kirchner, striking a more pro-business tone on the campaign trail but failing to articulate how his policies would differ in any significant way from the current administration’s. For a country that had grown increasingly frustrated with the current government’s lack of transparency and lackluster response to the country’s high rate of inflation, Macri was able to run on a platform of transparency, accountability and good governance — all while avoiding getting nailed down to too many specifics on economic issues. He promised change — the name of his alliance, Cambiemos, literally means “change together” — and he promised to govern “for all of Argentina,” a not-so-subtle jab at Kirchner’s staunchly pro-worker (as in, anti-corporate) ideology.

Mauricio Macri, via Wikimedia Commons

Mauricio Macri, via Wikimedia Commons

However, while positioning himself as generally more pro-trade and pro-corporate than the FpV, Macri avoided making too many commitments on economic issues, which is notable given that his economic team features veterans from the last conservative administration — that of Carlos Menem. The inclusion of Menem advisors has led to widespread speculation that Macri, once in office, will implement “shock” policies — most notably, drastic cuts to public expenditures and decoupling the currency from the dollar and allowing it to float, which would lead to an immediate devaluation of the currency from 9.80 Argentinian pesos to the dollar to roughly 14. The Kirchner administration has kept the currency pegged to the dollar so as to benefit Argentinian exports, which are sold in dollars, even as the policy has produced an informal “Blue Market” for American dollars that reflects the floating exchange rate (currently just over 15 pesos to the dollar). As domestic businesses have adjusted prices to reflect the Blue Market rate, white collar workers whose salaries are based on the official rate have seen their purchasing power decline as the Blue Market rate has strayed farther from the official exchange rate in recent years.

Macri will also likely seek to improve relations with the United States by both lowering trade barriers and by settling with American investors who have bought up Argentinian debt — referred to in the country as “vulture funds.” Marco Rubio megadonor Paul Singer holds one of the largest investments in Argentinian debt, which American investors purchase at discounted rates before suing for full repayment. Rubio has been one of the most forceful advocates in the Senate for putting US pressure on Argentina for full repayment.

Given Argentina’s natural leftward tilt, it’s unclear as to exactly how many of these policies Macri will be able to implement in the next four years without sparking significant backlash. One of the reasons the Kirchners and the FpV alliance were able to stay in power for as long as they did was that the general public still remembers the severe economic depression that ran from 1998 to 2001 — for which former president Carlos Menem and his neoliberal economic policies carry much of the blame. Furthermore, while Argentina’s executive does have control over many of the levers of economic policy, FpV still maintains a majority in Congress, so they will be able to block at least some of Macri’s agenda.

Again, this situation draws parallels with Charlie Baker’s current term as governor in Massachusetts. Governing in a liberal state and working with a Democratic legislature, he is limited in his ability to implement conservative policies — he has even made moves that would be progressive by Democratic standards, such as issuing an executive order that made Massachusetts the first state to include LGBT businesses in its supplier diversity program. This being the case, Baker is rated as one of the most popular governors in the country, clocking in at 70 percent job approval as of last summer (public opinion polling on Baker is sparse, but it’s safe to say he’s remained popular).

So while yesterday’s elections signaled a defeat for the left in Argentina, it should not be interpreted as a mandate for conservatives. Macri successfully turned the election into a referendum on Kirchner’s government, but not her pro-worker Peronist ideology. It will be interesting to see if his administration resembles Menem’s, as many on the left fear, or Charlie Baker’s, as his path to office would suggest.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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