November 25, 2015 2:20 pm
his is how socialism ends, not with a bang but with a squeaker. After a commanding lead during the run-up to Sunday’s presidential run-off election, in the end conservative challenger Mauricio Macri’s victory came down to only 200,000 votes in a nation of more than 40m. The defeat of Cristina Fernández’s political machine has prompted euphoria in much of Buenos Aires. Once it dies down, the president-elect will have his work cut out.
In democratic Argentina, non-Peronist presidents are the rarest of birds; none has finished a term in office. Mr Macri does not command a majority of Senate seats (although he can block hostile legislation). He has relatively little support among Argentina’s powerful provincial governors.
Meanwhile, much like Juan Domingo Perón, whose style shifted from militant nationalism to populist socialism, Peronism is amorphous, more patronage than ideology. It will recover.
Mr Macri may need time to transform the economic wasteland he inherits from predecessors who were happy to default on their country’s debt and shield inefficient industries from competition. But the effects of his victory may be sooner felt outside Argentina.
As the socialist tide in Latin America has receded, dragged back by the death or retirement of its charismatic leaders and the turning of the commodity cycle, it has left many a bloated government high and dry — in Brazil, Venezuela and Chile as well as Argentina. Still, Kirchnerism is the first to expire.
As the largest Hispanic country in South America, Argentina casts a sizeable shadow, and Mr Macri has promised to re-engage with the US and strengthen ties with the EU. Just as the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela helped bring populist movements to power across the continent, Argentina’s choice of a market-friendly pragmatism may galvanise opposition movements elsewhere.
In Venezuela’s legislative elections next month, Mr Macri’s victory has shown a nervous electorate that real change is possible through the ballot box. There is even a remote chance it might strengthen the resolve of Brazilians seeking to impeach Dilma Rousseff, or persuade Bolivians that there can be workable alternatives, ahead of February’s referendum on scrapping term limits for Evo Morales.
Beyond what he represents, the importance of Mr Macri lies in what he can do. The past two decades has seen the proliferation of supranational organisations in South America, which has weakened US influence over the sovereign affairs of their members. This, though, has led to an erosion of values. A code of silence has prevailed as like-minded nations refused to call out one another on the chipping away of democratic protections, free media and human rights.
Nowhere is this as visible as in Venezuela, now governed by Nicolás Maduro, a gaffe-prone Pierrot who succeeded Mr Chávez and displays a penchant for collecting political prisoners. Mr Maduro is the most visible symptom of the region’s troubling slide towards authoritarianism.
Mr Macri invited Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed Venezuelan opposition leaderLeopoldo López, to his victory speech. He has promised to invoke a “democracy clause” and suspend Venezuela from the Mercosur trade bloc during a summit in Paraguay, days after he takes office. The odds are stacked against success. All but one of Mercosur’s other voting members are allied with Mr Maduro, and Brazil has already made its opposition to suspension clear. Still, standing up to Mr Maduro would be worth it. It is the one promise that Mr Macri can deliver unilaterally. Forcing the conversation would signal to the US and the EU that Mr Macri is the future, and that the future is bright.