- - Tuesday, August 13, 2019

His rejection of politics as usual was the key to his unlikely 2015 victory, but four years down the road, it’s all but certain to make Mauricio Macri a one-term president.

As Argentina’s center-right leader sorted through the rubble of his landslide defeat in Sunday’s national primaries — widely viewed as a preview of the Oct. 27 election — analysts were grappling with what went wrong and what has kept Mr. Macri from fulfilling his promise of fashioning a “normal” country that would put its reputation for instability and economic mismanagement in the rearview mirror.

A successful businessman before entering politics, Mr. Macri was savvy in reversing the isolationism of his populist husband-and-wife predecessors, Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernandez, and fostered warm ties with Europe and the United States during the Obama and Trump administrations.

But critics say he failed to woo investors and never fully grasped the ferocity of a stubborn economic and currency crisis in which average Argentines, already hit by the end to formerly generous subsidies, lost some 12% of their salary’s purchasing power last year alone. Ms. Fernandez, whose party and policies were badly repudiated in the 2015 vote, is poised to make a startling comeback in October’s vote.

Even with the vote on the horizon, Mr. Macri would not tap into a traditional politician’s playbook, prominent sociologist Marcos Novaro said, and instead chose to honor the commitments that won him a $57 billion International Monetary Fund loan package last year.

“Politicians with a bit more experience were telling him: ‘Raise [public] spending.’ In other words: ‘Deceive the [IMF], but raise spending because otherwise you’ll lose,’” Mr. Novaro said. “They told him that many times; he wouldn’t listen.”

With uncharacteristic patience, voters who chose him in 2015 over Ms. Fernandez’s hand-picked successor initially backed Mr. Macri’s austerity plan, and his Cambiemos coalition handily won the midterm elections two years later.

But he then overplayed his hand just as the country was sliding into a deep recession. Voters demanded that Mr. Macri deliver on his promise of low inflation and “zero poverty” and turned on him fiercely when his government failed to deliver.

“Many indicators showed the rise in poverty, in people resorting to soup kitchens in poor neighborhoods,” said Mariano de Vedia, a political analyst for the traditionally pro-Macri La Nacion daily. “Evidently, the government did not take notice, and that shortsightedness fired back with the result of [Sunday’s] elections.”

‘A vote of anger’

Few are giving the president much of a chance of turning the tide after he trailed opposition challenger Alberto Fernandez by almost 3.8 million votes, a 15-point disadvantage.

“It seems almost impossible,” said Mr. de Vedia, predicting tensions within the Cambiemos coalition. “Actually, I would dare to forecast that the administration will get even fewer votes in October.”

But when a reporter at a Monday news conference in Buenos Aires noted he would be in office “until Dec. 10” — inauguration day — a visibly exasperated and defiant Mr. Macri shot back, “At the very least.”

“This is a vote of anger” about the economy, he conceded. “Luckily, the [general] election is in October … and we’ll keep explaining why what happened happened, and why we’re now better and ready to grow.”

He made the comments hours after government bonds and the Argentine peso lost a quarter of their value over markets’ unease with the prospect of a return to power of the leftist Mr. Fernandez, with former President Cristina Fernandez — no relation — as his running mate.

“This is just a sample of what will happen,” Mr. Macri said about the sell-off. “We can’t return to the past because the world sees that as the end of Argentina.”

But ultimately, threats of this kind will only get him more “rejection,” Mr. de Vedia predicted. And the attitude suggests Mr. Macri did not even get the voters’ memo, Mr. Novaro added.

“He’s telling them: ‘You’re wrong, you voted wrong … and I’ll be waiting here for you to correct your wrong decision,’” Mr. Novaro said. “It’s, once again, the illuminated telling the fools he’s the one who knows the way. There are politicians who do that; they tend to fail.”

Beyond the economic troubles, Mr. Novaro said, voters have soured on Mr. Macri’s pledge to turn Argentina into a “normal” country, a talking point the president underlined again Monday.

“If two [political] forces compete in a normal situation — in Chile — the markets don’t shift from euphoria to craziness,” Mr. Macri said.

Although the weight of Peronism, Argentina’s dominant if ill-defined nationalist big-tent movement, does make the political landscape unusually volatile, Argentines have tired of being told they are somehow flawed, Mr. Novaro said.

“It’s like having a girlfriend and saying, ‘There’s something I don’t like about you: your character,’” he joked. “You can say, ‘I don’t like your haircut.’ But if you tell me ‘your character,’ you’re killing me.”

To add insult to injury, the president failed to lead by example in his quest for “normalcy,” Mr. de Vedia said.

“In a ‘normal’ country, the first thing you sow are political deals,” he said. “Here, ‘This is the truth, this is the way’ was [Mr. Macri‘s] argument in the campaign. That’s a far cry from consensus politics.”

A Fernandez comeback

In an ironic twist, Mr. Macri will now likely hand the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s executive mansion, back to Ms. Fernandez, who so despised the then-Buenos Aires mayor that she refused to hand over the presidential sash four years ago.

The leader of the Peronists’ “Kirchnerista” bloc of populists is seen as the true force behind the Fernandez-Fernandez ticket, whose nominal leader, apart from a brief stint as a state legislator in the early 2000s, has never held elective office.

Facing more than a dozen criminal investigations over corruption charges during her 2007-2015 presidency, Ms. Fernandez in May promoted her namesake — a former chief of staff to her and her late husband — from campaign manager to candidate in a trademark move.

Although the mustached law professor is undoubtedly more low-key and soft-spoken, Mr. Macri’s gamble to seek a confrontation with his supposedly “toxic” predecessor may have been flawed from the beginning.

“People decide their vote on circumstances, not on how honest or corrupt the previous administration may have been,” Mr. de Vedia said. “They prioritize a protest vote, a protest vote that’s also a survival vote.”

Amid this intense polarization that Argentines have dubbed “la grieta” — “the crack,” the supposedly market-friendly Mr. Macri did little to shed the country’s populist, free-spending legacy, one of his third-party challengers charged.

“‘Macrismo’ is well-behaved ‘Kirchnerismo,’” Jose Luis Espert, a prominent economist turned presidential hopeful, told The Washington Times. “Like all versions of populism, it always ends in some crisis, and that crisis is what spoke up at the polls.”

Mr. Espert, who easily surpassed the 1.5% threshold Sunday for a spot on the October ballot, said the embattled president failed to eliminate the closed market, bloated government and “caveman era” labor laws that he said plague the country.

If the Fernandez ticket completes its expected comeback, Mr. Espert said, Mr. Macri will have no one but himself to blame.

“If [he] ends up being an interregnum between two [Fernandez administrations], it means that, if he had a message at all, it was so flimsy that it leaves nothing behind,” he said.

That, though, is too harsh of a verdict for Mr. Novaro, who pointed out that in pushing his unpopular reforms, the president did some of the much-needed “dirty work” that will be an inadvertent gift to his successors.

Mr. Macri was surrounded by an inner circle devoid of voices that would “dampen his mood,” the sociologist said, so his key error may have been his naivete about the feasibility of his own campaign promises.

It’s wrong to say Mr. Macri deceived the electorate, Mr. Novaro said.

“He believed he would lift [currency controls], devalue the [peso], end subsidies and, at the same time, lower inflation,” Mr. Novaro said. “He actually believed that. That was a grave mistake.”

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