The presidency of right-wing businessman turned politician Mauricio Macri seems to be entering its final act in Argentina. The presidential election itself will take place on 27 October, but primary elections held on 11 August served as an important electoral thermometer. They gave Macri’s left-of-centre opponents, the Peronist Justicialist Party, a thumping 16 point margin of victory over the incumbent.
The scale of the victory for the opposition Fernández-Fernández ticket – with Alberto Fernández as presidential candidate and former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (no relation) as vice-president – surprised many mainstream analysts. However, after travelling to Argentina in early August to film a documentary on the human costs of Macri’s austerity policies, it is not hard to understand the widespread rejection of ‘Macrinomics’ and the desperate desire for change.
In the 2015 presidential election, it was Macri who promised change. He even called his winning coalition Cambiemos (Let’s change). From 2003 to 2015, Argentina was governed by Kirchnerismo, the left-wing presidential administrations of first Néstor Kirchner and then from 2007 his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Under the Kirchners, Argentina experienced robust economic growth and dramatic improvements in the quality of life of the population. As US economist Mark Weisbrot points out: “Looking at the most important economic and social indicators, the governments of the Kirchner presidencies were among the most successful in the Western Hemisphere.”
Crucially too, under Kirchnerismo Argentina paid off its International Monetary Fund (IMF) debt in 2006, an important signal of sovereignty given the Washington-controlled IMF had pushed policies which resulted in the country’s economic collapse in December 2001. This collapse saw the biggest default in history, widespread civil unrest and brutal repression by state security forces with 39 people killed. The president at the time, Fernando de la Rua, fled the country by helicopter from the roof of the presidential palace.
Under the Kirchners, foreign policy pivoted away from Washington and towards regional integration with the ‘pink tide’ governments of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. The breakthrough moment for this alliance came in 2005 at the fourth Summit of the Americas, where US president George W Bush’s attempts to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) were dealt such a humiliating death blow. It was a high point for Latin America’s left.
So what went wrong to allow Macri, a multimillionaire son of Italian migrants and then Mayor of Buenos Aires, to sneak victory from the jaws of defeat in November 2015’s presidential election run-off?
Despite the broad socioeconomic gains under the Kirchners, the economy had slowed and inflation had accelerated. Government failings were amplified by US government attempts to undermine it, such as blocking loans from international lenders like the Inter-American Development Bank, at a time when Argentina’s economy was short of foreign exchange. By 2015, the bonanza years of Kirchnerismo had come to an end.
This context was used by Macri in a slick election campaign to drive a powerful media onslaught that vilified Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, her Peronist government and her would-be successor, widely regarded as an uninspiring candidate. Macri’s offer of a nebulous “change” resonated with a large portion of the electorate and his victory was meant to herald a new era of “clean government,” with Argentinians increasingly sick of the corruption that media outlets told them was omnipresent.
Instead of positive change, Macri’s presidency has instead been a spectacular failure. In nearly four years of Macrismo, Argentina has spiralled into a deep economic crisis with devastating human costs.
On a crisp winter day in early August, I sat in a patio in the low-income neighbourhood of Monte Chingolo, about a half hour drive south from the centre of the country’s capital Buenos Aires. I listened to one mother describe the misery Macri had brought to the lives of so many of her friends and family. She recounted how the desperate search for food had violated people’s sense of dignity.
Under Macri child poverty has risen to 50 percent, hunger has tripled and unemployment has reached double digits. Alongside this, inflation has risen dramatically from 18 percent to 54 percent and the level of public debt has grown to more than 86 percent of GDP from 53 percent.
Under Obama and now Trump, Macri has been a key US ally in Latin America. This perhaps goes someway to explaining why Argentina’s economic collapse has received relatively little attention in the mainstream English language media. In July last year Argentina received a $56 billion dollar bailout from the IMF, the biggest in the organisation’s history. In exchange, the IMF demanded a massive austerity package, that includes sweeping cuts to state subsidies and the public sector.
It should come as no surprise that a poll last year by the US-based Wilson Center found that 56 percent of Argentinians dislike the IMF, the worst ranking of any international organisation surveyed. At one mass rally against the government’s austerity policies we attended, we asked a protestor if they had a message for the IMF. They simply looked at the camera and raised their middle finger.
However unpopular the IMF and Macri are, the government seems desperate to hold onto power. While in Argentina, I was contacted by a whistleblower who worked as a civil servant in the capital’s local government. They told me that state employees were being forced to spend their working hours campaigning for Macri in the run up to the 11 August primary elections. The workers were told they had to canvass in the street during work hours, attend campaign events and do call centre work for Macri. If they refused they were directly threatened with dismissal. Those affected have now set up a website to denounce this abuse of public resources by the Macri government.
Macri’s resounding defeat in the August primary elections point to another likely defeat in the October presidential elections. However in 2015 he also lost the primary vote, by nearly 9 percent, yet ended up winning the election run off with 51.3 to his rival’s 48.7 percent. This time the nearly 16 percent margin of defeat in August makes a comeback less likely.
However, there is no room for complacency among Macri’s presidential opponents. The Trump government views Macri as a key geopolitical ally in a region where it is intent on ensuring the rise of Washington-friendly right-wing governments. US plans for military bases in Argentina, for example, would be scuppered by a Macri defeat. In addition, Macri and Trump have a personal connection that goes back to their past business dealings (Trump calls Macri “a friend”). These close personal relations have no doubt contributed to Argentina becoming one of the US’s number one allies in the region.
Unsurprisingly, since the August primary election result, the markets have spoken. Argentina’s economic turbulence seems to be increasing by the day. The apparent strategy at play is not subtle: scare the electorate into fearing the chaos of a Fernández-Fernández government. But it seems Macri has simply pushed too far, cut too much and caused too much suffering and disillusionment for this to save him at the voting booth.
As well as providing much needed hope to a population battered by austerity, a defeat for Macri this October will represent a massive boost to the left in Latin America and a major scalp in the fight to halt the rise of right and far-right governments in Latin America. This could have positive reverberations for progressive politics beyond the region too.