Andres Oppenheimer

Argentina has chance of a lifetime to discard its populist past. Will Macri pull it off?

Argentina's President Mauricio Macri awaits the arrival of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the government residence in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017.
Argentina's President Mauricio Macri awaits the arrival of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the government residence in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017. AP

Judging from the better-than-expected performance of President Mauricio Macri’s party in the Aug. 13 primary elections and from what the country’s leader told me in an interview, I’m feeling moderately optimistic about Argentina.

Macri, a center-right president, won most major provinces in the Aug. 13 primary for congressional candidates, which are widely seen as a preview of what may happen in key congressional elections scheduled for Oct. 22.

If Macri’s Cambiemos party wins in October, it would increase its minority bloc in Congress, and allow it to pass important economic reforms with the support of moderate opposition legislators.

More importantly, a Macri win in October would help dispel widespread business fears of a political comeback by former populist President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Such fears have been holding back investments, and contributing to Argentina’s slower than anticipated growth since Macri took office in 2015.

Former President Fernández, a close ally of Venezuela’s leftist regime, is running for senator to represent a district in the heavily populated Buenos Aires province, but she did not do well in Sunday’s primary vote. Considering that she is one of Argentina’s best known political figures, her statistical tie with a former Macri government education minister was unimpressive. The race is still undecided, pending a vote recount.

Read more: Argentina’s president says populism is over

In an Aug. 7 interview at his office, Macri told me that he expects to win the October elections by a landslide. Referring to Fernández, Macri said that “at the national level, it will be difficult for her to reach 15 percent of the total vote.” He added that his Cambiemos party “will win the election by a good margin.”

“There is a clear sentiment among Argentines that [the former president’s] populism led us to a fiesta that, when it ended, left us with a tremendous headache,” Macri said. He added that, in October, Argentines will “tell the world and tell ourselves that we have learned from our mistakes.”

Whether Macri will be able to restore international confidence in a country that last defaulted on its foreign debts in 2001 is an open question. But, with a bigger bloc in Congress and greater political strength to negotiate with opposition governors, Macri could pass key labor and tax reforms to revamp the economy.

That, plus an economy that is beginning to pick up, could help Macri’s chances to be re-elected in 2019, and to create conditions for more investments and long-term growth. Macri inherited a bloated public sector, and up to 20 million people — almost half of Argentina’s population — who receive some kind of government subsidies.

Macri told me that if his party wins in October, as he expects, he will invite moderate opposition governors of Fernández’s Peronist party to sign a national agreement of political parties for long-term economic policies, along the lines of Spain’s 1978 Moncloa Pact.

“We need a 20-year plan,” Macri told me. “Argentina has always looked with envy at Spain’s Moncloa Pact, and I think our time has come to do it. There are many governors with whom I have been talking with who say that, yes, it may be necessary to do a national accord, on a more solid base, to think about the long term and to change history once and for all.”

If Macri wins the October congressional elections, as now seems likely, he will have the opportunity of a lifetime to break Argentina’s long history of booms and busts, and to stop being a textbook case of an immensely rich country ruined by populism and political uncertainty.

Just as former President Fernández squandered Argentina’s biggest commodity export bonanza in the nation’s recent history during her term, Macri would waste this country’s biggest opportunity in modern times to create confidence among investors if he wins the October elections and doesn’t negotiate the national accord he’s talking about. If he fails to do it, Argentina will continue to be the economically unpredictable country it has long been.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español

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