Early in the night on Sunday, November 22, Mauricio Macri became the first leader of a conservative coalition to win a presidential election in Argentina since 1910. A sense of hyperbolic exhilaration has been flowing through conservative movements in the region ever since. Just a few hours after the victory, one Mexican tabloid, not without reason, hailed the event occurring all the way at the other end of Latin America as “the first blow in 15 years to the chavista bloc.”
Change likely lies ahead for much of South America. In the case of Macri and Argentina, the lesson for the region is how a conservative businessman, mayor, and former president of one of Argentina’s most popular soccer clubs, made use of a period of political and economic stagnation to radically revamp right-wing politics. His election gave new and powerful steam to the idea of a "democratic right," even if the two concepts remain, for many, in uncomfortable tension. To do this, Macri’s Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition incorporated liberal democratic jargon and widely shared notions of social rights into a broad-based, but notably tamed, conservative rhetoric. In that sense, then, Cambiemos’s victory can be read as a bittersweet success for departing president Cristina Kirchner and her late husband, as it proves how far their populist governments moved the political mainstream to the left over more than a decade. But against Cambiemos's own narrative and the optimism of progressive forces about the endurance of populist legacies, what Macri will do in office starting next week could be a totally different matter.
When Sebastián Piñera became president of Chile in 2010, Argentines looked down disparagingly at their neighbors, criticizing the intrusion of a billionaire businessman into the realm of politics. In the early 1990s, Argentines laughed at the rise of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the Bolivian president who spoke Spanish with a marked English accent. Alas, what goes around comes around. Macri is the heir to one of the leading economic groups in Argentina. And like Sánchez de Lozada, his accent seems foreign to modern politics in the country. It contains little of the staccato of popular Argentine castellano. The new president's words move fast and inward, the tongue one size larger than the mouth, the dispensable consonants buried under a free-flow of vowels that have typically characterized the accent of Argentina’s elites. It’s what Argentines, when mocking their country’s upper crust, refer to as “hablar con la papa en la boca” – literally, to talk with a potato in one’s mouth.
Yet few things are more misleading than Macri’s verbal intonation. What’s remarkable about the elections is how Macri was able to transcend the stigma associated with his social class to create a large, multi-class political movement. A prevalent theory during the 1960s posited that the Argentine elite’s inability to build popular consensus around their interests contributed to recurrent political instability and military coups. Macri’s victory appears to mark the unofficial end to that sort of thinking, showing how a conservative leader can win the majority of a socially progressive electorate in a contested election. Macri did what no other conservative predecessor was able to do: he turned right-wing thinking into an electorally competitive option.
There are many factors that explain Argentina’s apparent “right turn,” as María Esperanza Casullo, a political scientist from Universidad Nacional de Río Negro, recently explained. Beginning in 2003, when the late Néstor Kirchner came into power, kirchnerismo carried out a set of successful progressive policies: massive social programs that significantly reduced poverty, the maintenance of a low unemployment rate, and a good record on human and civil rights, including the prosecution of members of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship for human rights violations and the passage of a historic same-sex marriage law. In 2011, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner obtained reelection with 54 percent of the vote due to these achievements.
But since then, the government has been the victim of several self-inflicted blows. Starting around 2011, as the economy stalled, kirchnerismo rejected criticisms about the efficacy of many of its reforms; at the same time the government ignored new popular demands for more transparency, social inclusion, and citizen security. Decisions made out of some rigid notions about how economic agents would react made things worse. As Gerardo Aboy Carlés, a sociologist who studies populism at Universidad de San Martín in Argentina, said, “The last stage of Cristinismo does not do justice to kirchnerismo as a whole.” With a sectarianism “rarely seen in Argentina since the democratic restoration of 1983,” Peronism under Kirchner became, in Aboy Carlés’s words, something “increasingly alien from democratic Argentina,” and even “from Peronism itself.”
No scholar was more idolized by kirchnerismo than the political philosopher Ernesto Laclau, his name liberally trotted out as a source of legitimacy for populist politics in cafés and on TV programs. But kirchnerista activists disregarded one of Laclau’s most important messages about the nature of populist movements – the idea that no political identity is independent from the moment and discourse in which it is presented. Instead of responding to the changing concerns of constituents, acolytes of kirchnerismo have too often acted as if the government was intrinsically right, rather than understanding that “right” and “wrong” were the product of building a relationship of trust with their constituency, and then together establishing the movement’s priorities. Given these problems, it’s remarkable that Kirchner’s chosen successor, Daniel Scioli, still came just three percentage points shy of victory.
The irony of this all is that Cambiemos proved to be more observant of Laclau than his hagiographers. Macri presented Cambiemos as the only available means for political transformations in Argentina’s current climate. Bolstered by a sluggish economy and a sense of national fatigue after 12 years of Kirchner presidencies, Macri argued that only the Argentine Right was capable of representing a broad range of demands for change, no matter the kind. He embodied right-wing politics not as an ideological mandate but as a social construct, capable of representing even those interests that were not inherently conservative.
How exactly did Macri do this? Although his political ascent occurred outside the two most powerful political parties of Argentina, the liberal Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) and Peronism, he incorporated bits of each party’s political rhetoric into Cambiemos. Macri embedded Cambiemos within a broader defense of republican values – not always a comfortable lexicon for movements historically associated with military coups. As Jennifer Adair, a historian at Fairfield University who studies the post-dictatorship democratic “transition” that was led by President Raúl Alfonsín, explained, Macri's alliance with Alfonsín’s heirs “allowed PRO [Macri’s political party and the dominant party within the Cambiemos coalition] to build off the remaining territorial base of the Alfonsín’s UCR.” This proved to be a crucial advantage for Macri on Election Day.
However, when historians look back on Macri’s victory, the day that will remain most significant will be Sunday, July 19, 2015, when Macri acknowledged that he would not roll back all kirchernista reforms. In a speech after his party won by a narrow margin local elections in the city of Buenos Aires, he said that the Universal Child Allowance, the largest and most successful social program of the Kirchner years – and a policy denigrated by one leader of Cambiemos as a subsidy for drug consumption – would continue. Macri added that the nationalization of Argentina’s national airline, one of the most contested economic actions taken during Cristina Kirchner’s presidency, would not be reversed. (Advisors to Macri had made similar comments about the country's national oil company). In just a few words, Macri insisted, clearly and publicly, that should he be elected, the state would still have a significant presence in the economy, particularly with respect to social policies targeting the poor.
This was a game changer. Those vitriolically opposed to the Kirchners whined, yet they remained by their candidate’s side. And through Macri, social rights – the notion that social sectors like workers and the unemployed are entitled to protections, as a group, to put them on an even playing field with the rest of society – have now been incorporated into Cambiemos. A vast electorate, which over decades internalized the idea that social rights are intrinsic components of democracy, opened itself to the conservative candidate, arguably for the first time in the twentieth-century. (Less than a year ago, I mentioned to one of Macri’s advisors that the then-candidate’s only hope in winning laid in recognizing the Kirchners’ achievements, accepting comprehensive ideas of social policies and state intervention. At the time, I judged that he would not be able to do so. I was right in the first part. And clearly wrong in the second one.)
Of course, against these changes, the rhetoric of Cambiemos remains plagued with clichés originating in the modernizing theories of decades past. These include tropes about the risks of collective action, the limits of guaranteed government benefits, and the fear of strongmen squashing individual freedom. Argentina’s future Secretary of Treasury has said that every few decades a caudillo from the backwards provinces does away with progress made by advanced urban politics. Another member of Cambiemos has also suggested that women in poor neighborhoods get pregnant so they can obtain social benefits designed for mothers. But such extreme claims can be deceiving; fears about populism mask its threatening proximity and influence. Consider the fact that as recently as the late 1940s, Macri’s grandfather, an Italian immigrant, settled in a Buenos Aires housing project that Eva Perón paternalistically made available to new immigrants, the embodiment of the sort of populism that Macri’s coalition decries today.
If the experience of Chile’s Sebastián Piñera, who hailed the importance of Macri’s victory, indicates anything about what may be in store for Argentina during a conservative presidency, the future might not be as dark as many on the Left may think. Jennifer Pribble, a political scientist at the University of Richmond who studies social policies in Latin America, notes that Piñera “did not undo any of the center-left Concertación’s emblematic social reforms under Bachelet.” While Piñera “had initially criticized Bachelet's pension reform as a new handout, he made no effort to roll it back.” But as Pribble also points out, with Chile’s economy booming at the time, Piñera had few incentives to cut social policies. Economic expansion, high international prices for copper, and social programs passed by law (with their funding secured), all prevented a radical revision of social policies there.
But Macri will have incentives to change. The Argentine economy is entering its fourth year with little to no growth. Soybean prices are at their lowest in a decade. Macri’s economic advisors have already promised to target Argentina’s large fiscal deficit. And inflation this year will be around 25 percent. What’s more, not all of the social programs in Argentina have secured funds, making them far more vulnerable to belt-tightening measures. Given this context, Macri’s new economic team has already announced some of its intended first measures. These include the reduction of export taxes on soybeans and the elimination of such taxes on Argentine beef, wheat, and corn. They also include the end of massive subsidies for domestic utilities and transportation. The gamble is to reduce the fiscal deficit and incentivize foreign investment, but the chance of generating more inflation while reducing fiscal resources looms on the horizon. If history has taught us anything, it’s that hawkish attempts at reducing the fiscal deficit tend to expand it. If that happens, the incentives for a more conservative austerity plan, and the coercive measures that would accompany it, will be greater. The hope that populist legacies will restrain Macri’s conservativism clash against a more Leninist notion of politics: that a brief moment of broad support should be taken advantage of to carry out the most radical reforms. No wonder The Economist, thrilled with Macri's victory, predicts reforms that are “likely to be faster and more profound” than some may expect.
In the meantime, Macri will also roll back the foreign policy of the last decade. Crucial in that agenda will be Venezuela. Macri has already said he will request the removal of the country from the Mercosur trade bloc. It’s a bold proposal, but one that seems to currently have little regional support. But the region, which has been effective in keeping U.S. pressures for regime change at bay, is increasingly ineffectual in having a positive impact in what seems to be a toxic domestic dynamic in the oil-producing country. That vacuum will keep space open for Macri to make demands on Venezuela, and for the United States to back Argentina.
Yet the real signs for the rest of Latin America will not be read in Macri's foreign policy but back at home. The new administration’s ability to appeal to the country’s popular sectors as it tries to maintain ideological commitments is likely to define the success or failure of Macri’s presidency. It is also likely to underscore the legacies of kirchnerismo. As this process unfolds, conservative movements in the region will be looking toward the flat, western shoreline of the Rio de la Plata in search of their city upon a hill.
Ernesto Semán teaches history at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies.