September 28, 2015 4:52 pm
When Argentina’s leading presidential candidate deftly tied his tie with one hand on the country’s most-watched television show the audience applauded his ability to turn adversity to his advantage.
Despite losing his right arm in a powerboat racing accident in 1989, Daniel Scioli went on to win several world championships over the next decade, balancing it with a business career selling household appliances.
Now, with just a month to go until presidential elections on October 25, polls are for the first time predicting a first-round victory for the 58-year-old governor of Buenos Aires province. By gaining more than 40 per cent of the vote with a 10-point lead over his closest rival, Mr Scioli could avoid an unpredictable run-off vote on November 22, according to a poll by Ricardo Rouvier & Asociados.
“I have prepared to be president for all of my life,” Mr Scioli recently told a theatre in central Buenos Aires that, in an ostentatious show of his support, was packed with ministers, provincial governors, businessmen and powerful representatives of the ruling Peronist party, of which he was leader until last year.
After 12 years of rule by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term, and her late husband and predecessor Néstor Kirchner — under whom Mr Scioli served as vice-president from 2003 to 2007 — Argentina is now poised for a new era.
Just how different it will be from the self-styled “victorious decade” of the Kirchner couple, who took power in the aftermath of Argentina’s 2001 economic collapse, depends on whether Mr Scioli succeeds in defeating his closest rival, Mauricio Macri, the market-friendly mayor of Buenos Aires who has branded himself as the candidate for wholesale change.
Although Mr Scioli bills himself as the continuity candidate — his running mate, Carlos Zannini, has long been one of the Kirchners’ closest advisers — he accepts that “gradual” change is needed in Argentina’s stagnating economy. The country has a yawning fiscal deficit, double-digit inflation and critically low foreign exchange reserves. Complicating matters, Argentina’s ability to borrow abroad is hindered by a legal disputewith a group of US hedge funds.
“Most of the problems in Argentina’s economy have the same source, which is the fiscal deficit, and the financing of it by the central bank,” says Mario Blejer, an economic adviser to Mr Scioli and former central bank governor. “The worst problem is the lack of investment, but if you don’t fix the other problems, you won’t get investment,” he says.
There is broad consensus among Mr Scioli’s economic team that Argentina needs access to international financing to plug the fiscal deficit, and that in order to do so an agreement must be reached with the so-called “holdout” creditors, who refused to participate in debt restructurings after the 2001 default. Even so, publicly Mr Scioli still echoes Ms Fernández’s attacks against what he also calls “vulture” funds.
“Don’t concentrate too much on what Daniel says right now. Look instead at how he has governed the province of Buenos Aires for the last eight years,” says Gustavo Marangoni, the president of the Bank of the Province of Buenos Aires and a close adviser to Mr Scioli.
Most of the problems in Argentina’s economy have the same source, which is the fiscal deficit, and the financing of it by the central bank
- Mario Blejer, economic adviser to Daniel Scioli
Making up for a lack of charisma with a work ethic that Mr Marangoni describes as “hyperactive”, Mr Scioli has succeeded in balancing the budget and halving the debt of Buenos Aires province, whose 17m inhabitants account for around 40 per cent of Argentines. In doing so, he has broken with a time-honoured tradition of chronic deficits in Argentina’s provinces.
Nevertheless, Mr Scioli says that he is constantly “underestimated”, and rejects fears that he will be Ms Fernández’s puppet after she has left office. His defenders point to Argentina’s strong presidentialist system, and his success in shrugging off previous attempts to curtail his power in office.
Many say that the confrontational Ms Fernández’s most harmful legacy is the polarisation of Argentine society. But Mr Scioli’s record as a consensus builder and negotiator has raised hopes. He negotiated his kidnapped brother’s ransom and release from leftist guerrillas when he was just 18, and decorates his home with wax statues of famous figures as disparate as Che Guevara and Winston Churchill.
“Daniel is someone who brings people together, and that will never change,” said an acquaintance. “When he won in his speedboat, he did so by overtaking the competition, not by sinking them.”