Here’s something President Mauricio Macri, the leader of Argentina’s centre-right ruling coalition, has probably never experienced before: being fired. Scions like Macri, the son of a wealthy tycoon who amassed a fortune under the last military dictatorship and beyond, are more used to axing employees. They are never normally on the receiving end of the axe. But on presidential election night, when the preliminary vote count was over, it was clear that the people had dismissed Macri.
The president was defeated 48 percent to 40 percent by Alberto Fernández, the candidate leading a united left-leaning Peronist front, according to the speedy preliminary vote count. Arguably the Peronist unity was not total but it was broad enough, and crucially, it included president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as the vice-presidential candidate. Macri’s camp failed to splinter the Peronists when it thought it could ride to victory by polarising the election with the backing of the non-Peronist vote. That did not work, mainly because a dire economic situation crippled any chance that the artificial spin favoured by the Macri administration, most notably Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña, could perform any miracles.
Now, depending on how you choose to see it, Macri is either the first president to lose a re-election bid or the first non-Peronist president to fulfill his mandate since 1928. The president took his defeat gallantly because he managed to improve, after an inspired trailblazing campaign in the closing days ahead of the first round, on his performance from the routing he suffered in the August PASO primaries. Macri, at least according to the preliminary vote count, on Sunday managed to carry Buenos Aires City, Córdoba, Mendoza, San Luis, Entre Ríos and Santa Fe. How about that? The outcome prompted some jokers to quip that central Argentina should declare its independence. In Buenos Aires City incumbent Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, a key Macri ally, won re-election in the first round with 55 percent of the vote, avoiding what could have been an awkward run-off against an emboldened Peronist front.
Yet for all the varnish applied to the defeat by the outgoing rulers, the final outcome is this: Macri lost. Take a look at Buenos Aires Province, the nation’s biggest district. Axel Kicillof, the leftist Kirchnerite candidate, defeated incumbent Governor María Eugenia Vidal 52 to 38 percent. Kicillof, Fernández de Kirchner’s last economy minister in 2015, toured the region in a rackety little Renault.
Vidal was supposed to be the nation’s most popular politician if you believed the polls and the rising star in Macri’s coalition. Not any more. Kicillof, an academic with golden boy looks known for his unconventional economic ideas that question the very sense of neoliberalism, is the most left-leaning politician ever to be elected governor of the country’s biggest province since 1973. Kicillof’s big win, with over 50 percent of the vote, is the most significant shift in the landscape (even when the Kirchnerites lost in large provincial cities, they thought they could snatch from the centre-right like Bahía Blanca, La Plata and Mar del Plata). Kicillof must deal with another fate, however: no Buenos Aires Province governor has ever gone on to win a presidential election.
Significantly, Kicillof gave a deliberately brash victory speech on election night accusing Vidal of leaving the province in a decrepit state. The concession speeches delivered by Macri and Vidal had been too celebratory if you ask Kicillof. (Vidal declared that God had decided to “give her a respite.”) Fernández’s lead over Macri in Buenos Aires province was close to 1.5 million votes. It is that votegetting electoral muscle that won Fernández de Kirchner the vice-presidency. The former president has made a series of wrong calls in the past, that triggered a string of electoral defeats for her party and left her on the ropes. But in hindsight her decision back in May to anoint Alberto Fernández, who had voiced criticism of her presidency after quitting as Cabinet chief in 2008, proved to be a masterstroke that has ousted Macri after only four years in office. She somehow blindsided Macri’s elite campaign team at the last minute.
The final vote count could show a wider margin of defeat, according to the Peronist lawmaker Sergio Massa. But the outgoing president’s goal was to avoid humiliation and to close ranks. The centre-right coalition is not dead. Macri was quoted as saying that 40 percent turns him into the leader of the opposition. But eventually defeat will sink in – the centre-right must hand over the keys of the Argentine state to Fernández on December 10.
Four years is a long time though and while Macri might see himself now as “the leader of the opposition,” down the road the power in the centre-right might end up in the hands of Horacio Rodriguez Larreta and the lawmakers. The Peronists are close to controlling the Senate, which will be headed by Fernández de Kirchner. But Alberto Fernández’s broad Peronist coalition will not control the lower house Chamber of Deputies, meaning that it will have to hammer out deals with sectors of the centre-right that endorsed Macri. The presidentelect is an old school Peronist operative who served as Néstor Kirchner’s Cabinet chief from 2003 to 2007. He is used to cutting backroom deals with rivals. The lower house will be presided over by Massa, a moderate Peronist who decided to close ranks after years of fierce electoral confrontation with Fernández de Kirchner. The Tigre leader and the former president are now reportedly on good terms once more. Let’s not forget though that Peronism has a history of gruesome infighting when in power.
The day after the election delivered us a show of civility. Macri and the new president-elect met in Government House to design an orderly transition. Transition teams have been named. It is a stark contrast from 2015 when Fernández de Kirchner and Macri failed to agree on an orderly ceremony for the presidential baton to be handed over after bickering on the phone.
The outgoing government has meanwhile tightened capital controls, capping purchases at US$200 a month. Macri is trying to bow out like a gentleman, but economic reality has twisted his neoliberal arm. The president’s bid to marry Argentina’s brand of democracy with finance has, at least for now, failed. He bows out using the interventionist policies he abhors. Still, he still has support and is planning one last final massive rally before the end of his mandate in December.
The questions about a financial disaster have not gone away though. The US Treasury reminded Argentina after the electoral result that it can’t just ignore its accord with the International Monetary Fund. There’s also a nascent diplomatic brawl with Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s right-wing president who declared Argentina made the wrong choice last Sunday, especially after the Peronist candidate recently openly called for the release of the jailed leftist leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Mending fences with Brazil is just one of the most immediate challenges for the new administration. But all that can wait
a bit. On Sunday night Argentina’s imperfect democracy, as
established in 1983, once again won the day.