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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 20-03-2021 07:35

Macri returns, but is unable to turn the page

Taking a page from Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s playbook, Mauricio Macri has used a book launch to reset his political career in the midst of an electoral campaign.

Taking a page from Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s playbook, Mauricio Macri has used a book launch to reset his political career in the midst of an electoral campaign. 

The former president this week proved that he remains one of the most relevant and important players in the Juntos por el Cambio coalition that he helped found, clearly aligning himself as an antagonistic force to “populism,” and, more specifically, Kirchnerism. Macri’s disguised political rally illustrated some level of self-criticism, but it also revealed he still puts the blame for the failure of his administration on others, along the same lines as the populist Kirchnerites he generally points the finger at. 

Macri’s resurgence will most definitely pull the opposition coalition toward a more confrontational stance with the ruling Frente de Todos coalition, the pan-Peronist front that had already laid bare its strategy for this year’s midterm elections: picking fights with Macri. The former president’s public launch was most definitely seen as a challenge to their aspirations, spurring president Alberto Fernández into action, with the Peronist leader launching a surprise and out of character national broadcast (or “cadena nacional”), in which he essentially said nothing. In Argentina, the political season starts in March.

Macri’s book, titled Primer Tiempo (which translates into “first half” and refers to a football match and his past leading Boca Juniors as club president), is a 300-page overview of his presidency, put together with the help of former culture minister Pablo Avelluto, who served in his government, and a few other collaborators. The event itself was a demonstration of Macri’s team’s communication skills, using a large stage with five massive screens, with two armchairs and a table sat on top of a giant version of his book. Sitting, looking on in the crowd was almost every important member of the opposition – from “moderates” such as City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and former Buenos Aires Province governor María Eugenia Vidal, to hawks like PRO party president Patricia Bullrich, and even former cabinet chief Marcos Peña and former economy minister Nicolás Dujovne, who’ve both kept an extremely low profile since leaving office. The other two founding members of Macri’s 2015-2019 Cambiemos coalition, Ernesto Sanz of the Radical Civic Union (UCR) and Elisa Carrió of the Civic Coalition (CC-ARI) were notable in their absence. The event was covered live by most major television channels and made its way onto the frontpages of most national newspapers.

The former president spoke about the problems his administration encountered when taking office, including the inheriting of a bankrupt and failed state, and the obstacles put in their path by the likes of Lower House Speaker Sergio Massa — an initial ally of the Cambiemos coalition in Congress whom he later nicknamed “ventajita” (“petty advantage”) — and union strongman Hugo Moyano. While he did admit to some of the blame, noting the problem “wasn’t the direction but the form,” Macri all but ignored the economic collapse caused by his government’s decisions during their time in the Casa Rosada. Debaucherous indebtedness and the consistent increase in the fiscal deficit during the first half of the Macri administration didn’t come up, nor did the decision to publicly humiliate ex-Central Bank chief Federico Sturzenegger while throwing his inflation targets out the window.

In clear campaign mode, Macri generated applause with his attacks against the current administration, and Kirchnerism more specifically. The ex-head of state used the style that worked so effectively in his successful 2015 election campaign, mixing phrases from evangelical preachers and motivational life coaches, while pressing on with his usual themes of “change,” “modernisation,” and “anti-populism.” Together with Bullrich, he represents the hardliners within the opposition coalition that clash with the doves who preach collaboration and moderation with the Peronists. If Macri made it into the presidency by winning the “anti-Peronist” vote while capitalising on Kirchnerite exhaustion and discontent, a return in 2023 for his party would have to build on that base, but also expand to include the majority of Argentines who aren’t at the extremes, something both Rodríguez Larreta and Vidal could achieve. There is no clarity, for now, over whether he will run in two year’s time, which seems unlikely.

At the same time, the Fernández-Fernández administration has adopted an electoral strategy that is also based on shifting to the extremes, away from the moderate stance that gave Alberto an edge in the 2019 elections. With Cristina in full court press mode against the Judiciary, the president has used his latest public appearances to lambast the Macri administration, opening up criminal inquiries into the emergency bailout from the International Monetary Fund and the alleged “political persecution” against Kirchnerite politicians using the intelligence agencies and complicit judges and prosecutors.

Alberto has little to show for his year and three months in office, marked by the global coronavirus pandemic and a worsening of an already destroyed economy. Expressing the relative importance of Argentina in the world, the nation’s shortage of vaccines is derailing plans for a full economic recovery ahead of the October elections, and the Fernández-Fernández administration knows it. It is probable that the situation would’ve been the same under Macri, but the burden of proof is on the player in the Casa Rosada. Thus, the only explanation for the national broadcast that began minutes after Macri finished his book launch — in which Alberto Fernández essentially asked society to be responsible ahead of the imminent second wave of Covid-19 — seems to be the need to box out Macri by occupying the airwaves.

We are five months away from the PASO primaries (which in Argentina work like a nationwide public poll and have a clear impact on the final results) and eight from the general election. We remain in unprecedented times, with the coronavirus still ravaging the world and our region, and an uncertain but bleak economic future ahead of us. And Macri, along with Cristina — through Alberto — remain the most important political actors in our country.  Any chance of a half-time substitution?

Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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