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Mauricio Macri Wins in Argentina but Return to Neoliberalism Unlikely

Mauricio Macri, leader of the coalition Let’s Change, will be the next president of Argentina. Macri won by a narrow margin over Daniel Scioli this weekend, backed by the outgoing President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

This fact does not undermine the new government’s hard-won democratic legitimacy. It does however map out the current state of the country’s political preferences, partitioned in two opposing blocs, of equal halves, with roughly equivalent institutional representation in Parliament, provinces and municipalities.

The political implication of this reality escapes the analytical simplifications suggesting a straightforward ‘conservative restoration,’ or a return to the ‘old’ 1990s’ neoliberalism. There is, no doubt, the birth of a new 21st Century’s Right-wing politics in Argentina, as well as in Latin America more generally, electorally competitive and which the nature of Right-wing politics is yet unfolding.

It is too early to comment further on it at this point. However, there are reasons to suggest that, despite the arrival of Macri and his pro-market conservative coalition Let’s Change, a blunt return to neoliberalism looks unlikely for Argentina.

The performance of Let’s Change has been extraordinary because it showed electoral firepower beyond Buenos Aires, penetrating traditional Peronist strongholds such as Buenos Aires province or Jujuy in the North of the country.

The coalition will now govern Buenos City and province, Mendoza, Entre Rios and Jujuy. Santa Fe, governed by the Socialist party, can be a strategic ally.

Macri, the first President of Argentina since the transition coming from a third party, different from Peronism and Radicalism, will take office with a respectable level of territorial presence in provinces and municipalities. They are also arguably the wealthier, commodity-producers districts of the country. Macri was also supported by the majority in districts who elected Peronist governors, Córdoba being the most striking case.

However, the pan-Peronism retains control of seventeen provinces and hundreds of municipalities, the quorum of the senate and it remains the first faction in the lower chamber. Presidents do have leeway to negotiate cross-party agreements and forge new political consensus in contexts of adverse parliaments. However, this institutional reality presents the first objective problem to swiftly undo the policies that cemented the post-neoliberal consensus.

The conditions of 2015 are not the conditions of 1989 or 2003. To a great extent, the presidency of Carlos Menem and Néstor Kirchner were preceded by deep social and economic crisis which, in turn, paved the way for the generation of new political consensus. The psychological effects of hyperinflation constructed the conditions for the introduction of radical market reforms. And the unemployment and economic crisis of the 2000s, plus the social mobilisation from below, yet again, set the terrain for a shift in policy and politics, this time to the left. This was the time of the so-called ‘Washington consensus’ and the overwhelming presence of the IMF in the region, who imposed structural adjustments programs and market reforms as precondition to lend money below market rates.

The conditions for Macri’s presidency are substantially different. Debt in foreign currency is low in comparison to 2003, unemployment is at historic minimum, pensions are nearly universal, and trade unions have strengthened their positions as a result of it, and they do negotiate paritarias every year. There have been improvements in relation to the rights of minorities (same-sex marriage) and social policies like the child allowance have gained strong cross-party consensus. High levels of informal economy remain a problem and since 2011 the economy has slowed down. However, there are no objective conditions for an overwhelming support to change course in a radical fashion, another reason to be prudent with regards the ‘return to neoliberalism.’

But, above all, one of the most important reasons to be cautious about what comes next for Argentinian politics is what we can call the democratic excess, which overflows existing party politics and is manifested by the configuration of two competing identities. The presidential run-off showed that electoral preferences coincided this time with the fault-lines dividing political identities in Argentina. But what are the differences between the two and why their implication matter to sustain that a blunt return to neoliberalism remains unlikely for now?

(Mauricio Macri/Facebook)
(Mauricio Macri/Facebook)

Political preferences can change fast like a consumer enchanted by the effects of a new-brand marketing an old product that fulfils the same function. Political identities, on the other hand, are something of a different kind. They do change but they do so more gradually. Above all, the main difference between a political preference and a political identity is the level of engagement they tend to generate, particularly when the incumbents perceive that their preference/identity is under threat. A preference is determined by the ‘freedom of the individual to choose’ while a political identity is defined primarily by the ties of belonging to a community of peers with whom something valuable is shared. While a preference can be replaced by a ‘different option,’ a political identity under threat results in resistance, a high degree of civic engagement and mobilisation.

The fascinating feature observable in the context of Argentina is the coexistence of two qualitatively different identities with two quantitatively similar parts. In brief, one identity can be summarised as ‘Latinamericanist, neo-developmentalist’ while the other ‘cosmopolitan, market-oriented.’ These two competing identities have a centre core, which tends to be more ideological, and various softer rings of members, who show different degrees of loyalties depending on the policies and their specific circumstances. The outer rings, inevitably less ‘pure’ and more ‘contaminated,’ are the ones who define the fate on an election. But is it the centre core that holds power of the political organisations and electoral strategies.

There is indeed a greater complexity of political identities in Argentinian politics, but these two are the dominant ones. And they are relevant for democracy because they express two different cultural, economic and political projects, but, more importantly, because, they are competing on equal footing. In other words, they embody a credible narrative able to reach out nearly to half of the population. Having at least two competing political identities represents one of the most effective ways to establish mechanisms of accountability which are vital for a non-delegative democracy in a presidential system like the Argentinian. And this is the most important reason to believe that a blunt return to neoliberalism, despite the conservative turn in government, remains unlikely.

The conservative newspaper La Nación, the day after Macri’s electoral success, entitled its editorial “No More Revenge,” openly calling to stop the trials to the genocides that murdered and disappeared thousands during the dictatorship. The popular outcry, including La Nación own members of staff, has been overwhelming. This is a symptom of what is happening in Argentina. Macri had repeatedly argued in his campaign that the people wanted ‘to live every day a little bit better’; the 51 percent of the electorate seconded that. But it is also clear that the electorate has not delegated its sovereignty.

Dr. Juan Pablo Ferrero is a lecturer in Latin American politics based at the University of Bath.