The Consolidation of the Macri Era: It’s Morning in Argentina

The primary color of President Mauricio Macri’s political party (Republican Proposal, PRO) is yellow. On October 22, a yellow wave swept across Argentina, confirming the existence of a new political era: the Macri era.

Since the return to democracy in 1983, powerful political leaders have sequentially dominated Argentine politics: President Raúl Alfonsín (1983–1989), President Carlos Menem (1989–1999), and Presidents Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2003–2015), the latter three members of Argentina’s historically dominant Peronist Movement. At the start of 2017, the principal question surrounding President Macri was whether this midterm election would launch the true beginning of a Macri era of Argentine politics, or whether it would signal the beginning of the end for a lame duck President Macri.

On Sunday, Argentines gave President Macri and his Cambiemos (Let’s Change) alliance a resounding endorsement. They simultaneously signaled their rejection of the leading Peronists, leaving Argentina’s largest political movement bereft of leadership and in disarray. Today, the most likely scenario for Argentina’s medium-term political future is that Macri will remain as president until December 10, 2023, when (at the present time) he can be considered just as likely to hand the presidential sash and staff to a PRO successor (e.g., city of Buenos Aires mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta or province of Buenos Aires governor María Eugenia Vidal) as to a Peronist.

Cambiemos is an alliance of Macri’s PRO, the Radical Civic Union (UCR), and the Civic Coalition. Over a 15-year period, Macri transformed the PRO from a regional party into Argentina’s first new major national political party in more than 60 years. The PRO has already supplanted the UCR as the principal counterweight to Peronism and has adopted a novel governance approach for Argentina that combines a focus on good government, respect for the rule of law, and support for market economy fundamentals, within the context of a pro-growth and transparent regulatory framework. Macri’s success provides a primer for leaders throughout the hemisphere on how to simultaneously rescue a country suffering from the excesses and errors of populism and defeat attempts by populists to stymie reform efforts and return to power.

On Sunday, Macri and Cambiemos politically neutered every single one of Peronism’s top-tier potential 2019 presidential candidates by defeating them on their home turf, leaving the Peronist Movement leaderless and rudderless. At the same time, Cambiemos demonstrated its dominance at the national level as the country’s only cohesive nationwide political force both in terms of votes won and provinces won. Finally, Cambiemos notably increased its number of seats in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate.

The marquee event of the night took place in the province of Buenos Aires where close to two-fifths of Argentines reside. In the senate election, former minister of education Esteban Bullrich campaigned as the surrogate for President Macri and Governor Vidal. He faced off against three Peronist candidates, each of whom at the start of the year was a contender to be the Peronist Movement’s presidential candidate in 2019: former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, national deputy (and third place finisher in the 2015 presidential election) Sergio Massa, and Florencio Randazzo. Bullrich won an authoritative victory with 41 percent of the vote, followed by Fernández de Kirchner with 37 percent, Massa with 11 percent, and Randazzo with 5 percent. And, Fernández de Kirchner’s second place finish was a further boon for Macri, since it keeps her political organization on life support, and her continued presence on the political stage only makes it even more difficult for Peronists to coalesce.

Similar results occurred across the country as Macri’s lists of candidates (Argentina elects its Chamber of Deputies using closed list proportional representation) defeated those backed by the Peronist governors of the provinces of Córdoba, Entre Ríos, and Salta, each of whom was considered to be a contender to take the reins of Peronism and become the movement’s presidential candidate in 2019. In Córdoba, Macri’s list of candidates handily beat the list of Governor Juan Schiaretti, 49 to 31 percent. In Entre Ríos, Macri’s list bested the list supported by Governor Gustavo Bordet by a similar margin, 53 to 38 percent. In Salta, Macri’s list defeated that backed by Governor Juan Manuel Urtubey, 31 to 24 percent, with a list affiliated with Fernández de Kirchner a close third at 23 percent.

Absent a clear leader, the Peronist Movement is likely to remain in a state of flux throughout the remainder of Macri’s first term. Furthermore, Peronist elected officials, from the all important governors (who tend to control the votes of co-partisan deputies and senators from their province) to mayors, are now much more likely to be open to accommodation with, and supportive of, the Macri administration and its policy agenda in exchange for financial, programmatic, and policy benefits that will aid them in their effort to maintain their hold on power and to obtain reelection (or the election of their chosen successor) in 2019.

Cambiemos cemented its status as the dominant political organization in the country. In the Chamber elections, which took place across all 24 of the country’s electoral districts (23 provinces and the city of Buenos Aires), Cambiemos garnered 42 percent of the vote and 61 of the 127 seats in play (one-half of the 257 deputies were up for election). Cambiemos won the most votes in 13 of the 24 provinces, including the five most populous provinces (province of Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Santa Fe, city of Buenos Aires, Mendoza), which combined contain two-thirds of the Argentine population. The remaining seats were scattered among Peronists who respond (to varying degrees) to the leadership of Fernández de Kirchner (28 seats), to Peronist governors and leaders opposed (to varying degrees) to Fernández de Kirchner (26 seats), among legislators who respond to leaders of regional parties that exist in only one province (9 seats), and among two small leftist parties (3 seats).

Macri’s Cambiemos increased its seats in the Chamber of Deputies from 86 to 107 and in the Senate (which renewed one-third of its 72 senators) from 15 to 24, with Cambiemos winning 12 of the 24 seats in play. Given the dispersion and disarray in which Peronism now finds itself, as well as the primordial goal of Peronist governors, legislators, and mayors being political self-preservation (prioritizing their own political future over that of the Peronist Movement), it should not be too difficult for Macri to broker either stable or temporary alliances with groups of Peronist senators and deputies whose province is governed by a Peronist, as well as with regional party legislators from provinces where their party controls the governorship (i.e., Misiones, Neuquén, Santiago del Estero), obtaining the passage of priority legislation in exchange for financial, policy, and other benefits.

Sunday’s results have put to rest any immediate concerns that Argentina might return to the dark days associated with the Kirchner era. Instead, they have reaffirmed that it continues to be morning again in Argentina under the leadership of President Macri, with the country’s future today brighter than at any time in recent memory.

Mark P. Jones is a senior associate with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Mark P. Jones