Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Argentina’s elections give reasons for hope

The race for Argentina’s October presidential elections has started with a big surprise: pro-business Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri is ahead in several polls, and has a chance of ending 12 years of leftist-populist Kirchner family-led Peronist governments.

Before we get into whether he will be able to win, let’s review what Macri told me in a wide-ranging interview a few days ago.

Macri, an engineer who presided over the popular Boca Juniors soccer club before he was elected Buenos Aires mayor in 2007, is slightly ahead in two of four recent nationwide polls. The polling firms Polldata and Giacobbe and Associates have him in the lead, while a poll by Management & Fit puts him in a virtual tie with possible government-backed candidate and Buenos Aires province Gov. Daniel Scioli, and a fourth survey by the Poliarquia polling firm has him trailing Scioli.

Asked how he expects to win against a government-backed candidate who will presumably have more resources and television time, Macri told me that he has already proved that he can do it.

When he first ran for mayor, few people thought he would have a chance to win against the ruling Peronist party, but he did so nevertheless. “Today, we have a serious chance of winning (because) after 25 years of the same thing, Argentines want something different,” Macri said.

Macri rejected speculation that, even if he wins, he would have a hard time governing, because the Peronist party may control Congress, most labor unions, and would have the support of millions of people who have become used to receiving Kirchner government handouts.

“Well, let’s stick to the facts: we have been governing the City of Buenos Aires for the past seven years despite having the hardest, most domineering (national) government in decades working against us,” he responded. “It will be much easier to govern if we are in the position of governing all of Argentina. So we are very confident.”

Asked what he would do with state companies, such as Aerolineas Argentinas and the railroads that were nationalized by the current government, Macri said he would approach that on a case-by-case basis.

“We want to stay away from ideological discussions, and seek concrete solutions,” he said. “We’re not in love with any (political) script.”

On the economy, he said his main priority would be to restore confidence in the country, at home and abroad, among other things by having an independent Central Bank, relaxing currency controls and controlling inflation.

These and other pro-market measures would move Argentines to invest in the country billions of dollars they currently keep abroad, and foreign investors would follow suit, he said.

Asked whether he would support corruption investigations into outgoing President Cristina Fernández and other top current government officials, Macri said, “Absolutely. I don’t believe in impunity.” He added that he would press for the justice system not only to pursue pending charges against former officials, but also any wrongdoings that may happen under his government.

When I asked him what would change in Argentina’s foreign policy if he wins, Marci said, “Everything.” He added that “the axis of this government’s foreign policy has been only having close ties with Venezuela, and we believe that the axis of our foreign policy should be the entire world.”

Among his foreign policy priorities would be to restore Argentina’s damaged relations with neighbors, such as Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil; seek a “convergence” with the Pacific Alliance economic bloc made up of Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico, and improve relations with the United States, the European Union, China and other Asian countries.

My opinion: It’s too early in the race to draw conclusions from the polls, but Macri has made a strong start.

If Argentina’s economy keeps going downhill (it will be, alongside Venezuela, the worst performing economy in Latin America this year, according to International Monetary Fund projections) he has a good chance of winning.

But he will face formidable obstacles. While Fernández’s disastrous populist policies have left the country broke despite having benefited from the biggest commodity bonanza in nearly a century, she is likely to speed up the money printing machine to create an illusion of recovery in coming months, which could benefit whoever she decides to back.

The good news is that Macri’s two top contenders, opposition Peronist candidate Sergio Massa and to some degree Scioli, would also seek to reinsert Argentina into the global economy, and end its automatic alliance with Venezuela. Despite its recurrent mistakes, there are still reasons to be optimistic about Argentina.