AP NEWS

Mauricio Macri, Argentina president, faces re-election uncertainty

December 23, 2018

For most of his first three years in office, Argentine President Mauricio Macri had every reason to believe he would easily coast to re-election in late 2019. But with less than a year to go before the vote, President Trump’s “old friend” and close ally in the region increasingly looks like he might end up a one-termer.

Argentina’s economy, which the center-right Mr. Macri, a wealthy businessman before his 2016 election, had promised to jump-start, stubbornly idles amid meager foreign investments and an inflation rate that tops 40 percent. A brutal drought has cut into agricultural production, and a Trump tax-cut-fueled boom in the U.S. and a rising dollar have sucked up investment money that once went to Argentina and other hot emerging markets.

By the count of Clarin the country’s largest daily, and generally favorable to Mr. Macri 18 of the president’s 20 main promises from his campaign remain unfulfilled.

With his approval numbers hovering in the 30 percent to 40 percent range, the president nevertheless strode with confidence this month as he gathered his followers at a rally widely billed as the unofficial kickoff of his re-election bid. Doubling down on his pro-business “path of change,” Mr. Macri insisted that Argentina had no realistic alternative.

“Nothing can be built without tenacity, without persisting,” he told some 1,200 officials of his Cambiemos coalition. “Like never before in my life, I’m am more and more sure convinced that this is it, that there is no other path.”

But Argentines’ patience with the 59-year-old president is running low, and that trend plays into the hands of Cristina Fernandez, Mr. Macri’s populist predecessor and political archrival, who is widely seen as readying for a comeback next year.

The subject of a half-dozen criminal investigations and not in police custody thanks to her congressional immunity, Ms. Fernandez, a senator since 2017, had long been seen as too damaged politically to mount a credible challenge to Mr. Macri.

But in an ironic twist, accusations of massive corruption in her administration this month encircled her successor’s family. A federal judge investigating whether Franco and Gianfranco Macri, the president’s businessmen father and brother, paid officials of the Fernandez administration bribes for lucrative road concessions.

Although Ms. Fernandez remains the underdog in the expected matchup for now, the momentum is suddenly in her favor, Facundo Cruz, a political scientist at the University of Buenos Aires, said in an interview.

“Last year, I would have told you that Macri’s re-election was assured, and Cristina impossible,” he said. “Today, I’m telling you that Macri is a possibility and Cristina uncertain.”

The populist Ms. Fernandez, a close ally of the region’s leftist leaders such as late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, frequently clashed with Washington during her 2007 to 2015 presidency. Her return would be troubling news for the Trump administration, which has highlighted the president’s personal relationship with Mr. Macri.

Political toxicity

Absent a significant economic rebound, Mr. Macri’s best bet for a second term may be Ms. Fernandez’s political toxicity, Mr. Cruz said.

“When you vote, you vote according to what your wallet feels like, and today ... your wallet is feeling thin,” Mr. Cruz said. “Those who still have patience are those who say that if Macri doesn’t win, the previous administration returns. And back then, they were having a worse time.”

But Ms. Fernandez hammers home the message that most Argentines during her presidency paid a fraction of what they do today for transport and utilities because of government subsidies buoying soaring world commodity prices.

“People avoided going to the grocery stores on the weekends because of the lines,” she said last month at a meeting of former leftist leaders in Latin America. “Today, the grocery stores are literally empty.”

Mr. Macri, by accepting a $57 billion International Monetary Fund loan, has turned the nation into a “mere agent of policies imposed from abroad,” Ms. Fernandez said.

But Ms. Fernandez remains deeply unpopular among fellow Peronists, only a fraction of whom still back her Citizen’s Unity bloc, because of the personality cult and iron first with which she ran the movement.

″[They] are having a debate between a leader who has the votes and party brass who have the structures,” Mr. Cruz said. “Cristina doesn’t want the Peronists to be there, and the Peronists don’t want Cristina to be there.”

Mr. Macri’s Cambiemos party is banking on the divide for a repeat of the 2015 election, when Peronists split their votes between a Fernandez critic and the outgoing president’s hand-picked successor, who lost the runoff to Mr. Macri, political commentator Mariano de Vedia recalled.

“They believe that the resistance to [Ms. Fernandez] will maintain itself, which in turn could benefit them,” Mr. de Vedia, of the leading La Nacion daily, told The Washington Times.

As much as he might cherish a splintered opposition, though, Mr. Macri first has to worry about uniting his own coalition, made up of his center-right PRO and the more left-leaning Civic Coalition (CC) and Radical (UCR) parties.

His effort to shift discussion away from a faltering economy to his administration’s crime-fighting efforts backfired this month when outspoken CC leader Elisa Carrio decried new rules relaxing police use of firearms as “fascist.”

Worse, the four-time presidential candidate, now a lawmaker in Argentina’s lower house, doubled down at a party meeting last week when she derided “corrupt” politicians within Cambiemos, which she said needed change “from within.”

“Carrio is a special case. They perceive that with Carrio, it’s better to have her on the inside than on the outside,” Mr. de Vedia said.

Ultimately, the governing coalition will likely pull together. A breakup just a year before Argentines head to the polls would bear enormous political costs for all sides, and no challenger has emerged who can match Mr. Macri in name recognition, election handicappers say.

Still, it will be a tough balancing act as danger lurks for Mr. Macri not just on the left but also on the right as conservative, nationalist Jair Bolsonaro’s surprise victory in neighboring Brazil proved in October. For Mr. Macri, that means he can’t just dispense with the law-and-order talk that makes the likes of Ms. Carrio uncomfortable.

“Let’s not forget that in Brazil, Bolsonaro won a with very similar discourse,” Mr. Cruz said. “And the administration has faced the risk of a candidate popping up to the right.”

The one thing that is certain about the final year of Mr. Macri’s term is that nothing is as certain as during the previous three.

“I’m seeing [it] as unstable and unpredictable for all,” Mr. Cruz said, “the administration and the opposition.”

AP RADIO
Update hourly