Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: A political earthquake in Argentina

Center-right opposition leader Mauricio Macri’s outstanding performance in Argentina’s Oct. 25 first round elections was a political earthquake that — regardless of who wins the Nov. 22 runoff vote — will most likely put an end to 12 years of leftist populist rule, and may have a big impact on other South American countries.

Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires, surprised everybody by not only forcing a runoff election against government-backed candidate Daniel Scioli, but also by winning the giant province of Buenos Aires — home to 37 percent of the country’s voters and which had been in the hands of Scioli’s Peronist party for nearly three decades — and most of the country’s biggest provinces.

In addition, Macri and fellow opposition candidate Sergio Massa won enough seats in Congress to end President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s followers having an absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies.

Most importantly, by doing much better than most polls had predicted, Macri has the political momentum. He enters the race for the runoff election looking like a winner.

Polls had placed him about 10 points behind the government’s candidate, and many had predicted that Scioli would win the overall election in the first round. Instead, Macri came in a close second, almost tied with Scioli, fueling speculation that he will be able to garner enough votes from defeated opposition candidates to win the second round.

Marci and Scioli’s demeanor on the night of the first round vote said it all. A radiant Macri made what amounted to a victory speech, with a peace-and-love message calling for national reconciliation. “Gracias! Gracias! Gracias!” he kept telling the crowd. Scioli, by contrast, looked like an angry, sour man, warning the nation of dire times if the country were to change course.

Scioli now faces a formidable challenge: If he moves to the center to expand his base, he risks losing the support of Fernández’s leftist populist political machine. If he shifts to the left to secure the government’s political machine, on the other hand, he won’t win many of the moderate votes he needs to expand his base.

To make things worse, relations between the outgoing president and Scioli, which had never been good, got worse after Sunday’s vote. Both sides blame one another for the poor results. Tensions are running high in government circles, government officials concede.

“If the government candidate wants to be president, he will have to stop behaving like a Cristina [Fernández] employee,” said Massa, the No. 3 finisher in first round election.

Massa has not supported either of the final candidates, but is more critical of Scioli than of Macri. Most of Massa’s supporters are tired of the Fernández government’s rampant corruption, mismanagement and authoritarian rule.

A source close to Massa, with access to his campaign’s internal polls, tells me Massa’s supporters are government critics who are likely to vote for Macri “by a bigger than 2 to 1 margin.”

However, this does not mean that an opposition victory is a done deal because many Massa supporters are “Peronists” — followers of the late general Juan Domingo Peron, like Scioli — who could be swayed by a Scioli campaign depicting Macri as an allegedly right-wing candidate who would dismantle social programs. That’s a message that could still work with many voters in Argentina, the Massa campaign source said.

Scioli’s strategy in a planned debate with Macri will be to focus on ideology, seeking to demonize his rival and present him as the candidate of the rich. Macri’s strategy, in turn, will be to focus on the government’s record of corruption, mismanagement, abuse of power and economic downturn, and to depict Scioli as a government peon.

My opinion: Argentina’s election is coming down to a choice between continuity and change, and — in a country with zero economic growth — Macri’s message of change may have the most appeal. Scioli could still win, but only if he changes course and distances himself from the government. Either way, this looks like the end of the leftist populist cycle in Argentina.

Andrés Oppenheimer: @oppenheimera; Watch ‘Oppenheimer Presenta’ Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español.

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