BUENOS AIRES — Six months into his presidency, Argentina’s Mauricio Macri still finds his agenda determined and dominated by someone off the political stage for just as long: his predecessor and longtime nemesis, former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
Swept into office on high-flying promises of eliminating poverty and ending the drug trade, the center-right former Buenos Aires mayor and former businessman has so far been preoccupied with trying to stabilize the crumbling economy and clean up a corruption-ridden government he inherited from the populist Ms. Fernandez — who, he complained last month, left him “a bomb about to explode.”
Argentina’s precarious fiscal situation has forced Mr. Macri to rein in out-of-control spending by cutting government subsidies, a bitter pill for many Argentines who saw their bus fares double and utility bills quadruple overnight. But his approval numbers remain high as a flurry of indictments back his claim that 12 years of populism left the country in dire straits.
Mr. Macri’s plight is being closely watched across the continent as he tries to implement pro-market reforms after ending more than a decade of leftist rule by Ms. Fernandez and her husband and predecessor, the late Nestor Kirchner. With the so-called “pink tide” of left-leaning political ascendancy receding in countries across South America, Argentina’s efforts to chart a new course economically and politically could be a bellwether.
Last week’s stranger-than-fiction arrest of Jose Lopez — a close ally of Ms. Fernandez and Mr. Kirchner — only underscored Mr. Macri’s struggles to move on, with police saying they nabbed the longtime public works secretary as he was trying to hide some $8.9 million in cash on the grounds of a women’s convent outside Buenos Aires.
Footage of Mr. Lopez’s suspected stash of bribes — luxury watches, a .22 caliber Sig Sauer rifle and some 200 pounds worth of bills in foreign currency that he was seen tossing over the nunnery’s walls — for days dominated local media coverage and led even Fernandez loyalists to decry what a prominent pro-Macri commentator for the La Nacion daily dubbed “ridiculous extremes of corruption.”
Mr. Macri was quick to jump on the incident to contrast his administration with that of his predecessor.
“Fortunately, we Argentines have decided to change,” Mr. Macri told reporters last week. “We believe politics needs to be led by public servants with a vocation to give and construct.”
Private analysts say the incident was a PR windfall for the new president.
“These images are really overwhelming for society,” Joaquin Morales Sola, the La Nacion columnist, said in an interview. “One would have imagined for an official or businessman to feel sorry [about corruption] and talk to a judge. But that doesn’t have the impact these bundles of dollars have.”
After the April arrest on money-laundering charges of Lazaro Baez, a businessman with close ties to the Kirchners, Ms. Fernandez had remained uncharacteristically mum. But forced to weigh in on the Lopez case, she pointed the finger at the country’s business elite — a not-so-subtle dig at Mr. Macri, the heir of a well-known family of entrepreneurs.
“The money that Engineer Lopez possessed — somebody gave it to him. And it was not me,” the former president wrote in a letter posted on social media. “When a public official receives money, it is because someone from the private sector gave it to him.”
‘Messy and disoriented’ government
Lest he be cast in the same mold as the likes of Mr. Lopez and Mr. Baez, meanwhile, Mr. Macri has repatriated $1.3 million he held in an offshore account in the Bahamas. And cleaning up government is key among a number of leftover challenges he enumerated this month in a detailed account of the “messy and disoriented” government he says he inherited.
His “State of the State” booklet mostly detailed the waste and inefficiency — such as a 100-page case file to pay a $60 debt — that is a hallmark of Argentine bureaucracy. But the report also took pains to link those factors to the large-scale theft and out-of-control spending critics associate with the Kirchners’ way of doing business.
“The neglect of public tasks was accompanied by a progressive lack of transparency and the occurrence of corruption,” it said.
And if anyone deserved blame for the inflation and joblessness that have overshadowed Mr. Macri’s first six months in office, it was Ms. Fernandez, the report suggested.
“Economy activity had been stagnant for four years, during which few jobs were created,” it said. “The majority of prices were distorted, jerked about by a poorly regulated and much-repressed economy. [And] the persistent fiscal deficit mortgaged the future of the next generations.”
Despite the economic woes, meanwhile, Argentines in polls have shown uncharacteristic patience with Mr. Macri. And a majority of voters continue to believe that the former head of the Boca Juniors soccer club is capable of turning things around, Mr. Morales Sola said.
“We all knew that the former president left a time bomb,” he said. “That bomb cannot be deactivated in six months.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Macri has been so tireless in predicting a coming uptick in foreign investments, a drop in inflation and rising employment rates that his promises turned into a punchline for comedian Freddy Villarreal, who imitates the president on “Showmatch,” one of Argentina’s most-watched TV programs.
“In the second semester, spring will come. In Europe, spring is developing positively. It is something we will import from abroad,” Mr. Villarreal joked. “Everything will grow in the second semester: Winter vacations [and] Christmas will come,” the fake Mr. Macri added.
But the real president is running against time, and Guillermo Moreno — a prominent Peronist and the longtime domestic trade secretary in Ms. Fernandez’s Cabinet — earlier this month offered a preview of the kind of vicious vitriol Mr. Macri can expect if his predictions do not quickly materialize.
“[Jorge] Videla threw our companions into the sea, but he did not take their food away,” Mr. Moreno said as he unfavorably compared Mr. Macri’s belt-tightening policies to those of the brutal military dictator who ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1981.
According to Mr. Moreno, Mr. Macri was on track to creating “systemic ungovernability” — a reference to the massive strikes and protests that prematurely ousted all non-Peronist presidents since Argentina’s return to democracy in 1983.
But while Mr. Macri has already seen his fair share of demonstrations, a united opposition against him has yet to emerge, said Facundo Cruz, a political scientist at the University of Buenos Aires.
And unlike many of his predecessors, Mr. Macri has shown a shrewd ability to reach across the aisle and enlist the leaders of the country’s provinces, he added.
“The governors often set the course of what senators and deputies vote in Congress,” Mr. Cruz said. Mr. Macri “has been able to maintain a coexistence with Congress, even though he is in the minority.”
That strategy paid off earlier this month when the opposition-controlled Senate overwhelmingly signed off on two judges Mr. Macri had nominated for the Supreme Court, while the House of Deputies approved his signature tax amnesty and pension overhaul bill. But in the end, everything will come down to paychecks and pocketbooks, Mr. Cruz said.
“The economic agenda is eating up the administration’s moves every single day,” he said.