Argentina moves toward the center


Argentina will face tough challenges when its freshly elected president takes office in December after the elections set for Oct. 27, 2019. Its inflation is among the highest in the world, at nearly 50 percent last year.  The economy is in its second year of recession.  Unemployment has topped 10 percent, after more than a decade in the single digits. 

The country had to negotiate an unprecedented $57 billion agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to avert the prospect of a debt default, which would be the second in less than two decades. The international community welcomed the agreement and has supported continued IMF help.  

President Mauricio Macri’s leadership has been a stabilizing factor in a region plagued with conflict and divisions, from Venezuela to Nicaragua to Honduras and Brazil. As host of the G-20 Summit in 2018, Argentina did a praiseworthy job in brokering incipient global trade tensions and in leading substantial progress in commitments over issues of global relevance, despite divergent perspectives among G-20 leaders.   

Also noteworthy is that the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires has been Donald Trump’s only visit to Latin America as president. U.S.-Argentine bilateral cooperation was improved during Macri’s tenure, and expanded in areas from fighting illicit drugs to increasing commerce and cooperating on the Venezuela crisis. The U.S. played an important role in supporting Macri’s administration as it has struggled through massive economic challenges, especially since the powerful run on the peso began in April 2018. 

Argentina’s political leaders and parties have just finalized their lists of candidates and coalitions for the 2019 presidential and congressional elections, with primaries in August and the general elections in October. Until recently, the scenario seemed headed toward deepening the sharp political divide between the two main coalitions, one led by President Macri and the other by former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, known as CFK. 

In recent weeks, however, the two leaders seemed to have realized that they needed to expand the breadth of their coalitions to the political center. Each chose moderate running mates with reputations for finding solutions.

In a surprising move, Macri selected Sen. Miguel Ángel Pichetto, who for 17 years served as the head of the current opposition Peronist majority in the Senate, as his vice presidential candidate.  

Also unexpectedly, CFK ceded the presidential slot to her former cabinet chief, Alberto Fernández, and will run for vice president instead. CFK and Fernández had had a serious falling out during her early years as president.  

Both Pichetto and Fernández have reputations as pragmatic problem-solvers and coalition-builders across party and factional lines. Both have worked well with the U.S.

Argentina’s political system developed a deep divide between Macri’s and CFK’s supporters in what is popularly known as “la grieta,” a crack that risked crippling and paralyzing governing action. Macri and his supporters carry the burden of economic recession and reforms that have not yet borne promised results, while CFK carries the burden of unsuccessful populist policies during her years as president and ongoing corruption investigations of her and members of her team.  

Many Argentine commentators, politicians and citizens worry that if the division continues to widen, in the light of the present and future economic difficulties, Argentina could face a severe crisis of governability and legitimacy and a return to even more populist practices.  The new decisions on presidential and vice presidential candidates indicate that both leaders understood the political limits and dangers if their future government reached an office fueled by an intense minority and with bitter national divides. 

Both coalitions are working to recruit support across the center of the political spectrum, with the Fernández-CFK duo holding a slight lead in the initial polls. There is a third, less popular, slate of two centrists — former Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna and Salta Gov. Juan Manuel Urtubey — whose supporters likely will be up for grabs after the August primary vote.  

Hardline factions of each major coalition, however, are well represented in the congressional slates of the presidential tickets. According to available polls and pollsters, the race will be tight — likely all the way to a second voting round in November, depending on factors that include economic performance and developments in the corruption trials from the Kirchner presidency.

Whoever wins will have the difficult, but vital, job of generating cross-party communication and mustering consensus for the tough calls ahead for Argentina. The country’s future agenda likely includes negotiating a new agreement with the IMF, proposing delicate reform on sensitive issues such as labor rules, taxes and pensions, and attracting international investment.

Much-needed reforms failed to materialize, in part because of political division. Success for the new government will require ample political and social consensus and skilled deal-making. The experience of respected power brokers Pichetto and Fernández can be crucial to forge such policy agreements. 

Of the four candidates in the main presidential and vice presidential tickets, three have consistently underscored the importance of good relations with the US. Only Kirchner sought to steer the country toward a more confrontational foreign policy, especially during her second presidential term (2011-2015). 

Argentina’s moves toward moderation and governability — in a world where extremes, rather than the center, increasingly are becoming the norm — are promising. With its vibrant, talented society and abundant natural resources, Argentina has extraordinary potential. Solid governance and steadfast U.S. and international support are key to realizing that better future.

Earl Anthony Wayne is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Argentina.

Marcelo J. Garcia is a political analyst based in Buenos Aires and director at Contexto Consultores, a consulting firm specializing in economics, politics and public opinion.

Tags Argentina economic crisis Argentine elections Cristina Fernández de Kirchner Donald Trump International Monetary Fund Mauricio Macri

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