by Patrick Corcoran
December 13, 2016

from WPR Website



Patrick Corcoran is an analyst for

'‏InSight Crime' and a blogger at 'Este Pais.'

Argentine President Mauricio Macri

during a press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau,

Buenos Aires, Nov. 17, 2016

(AP photo by Natacha Pisarenko).


Mauricio Macri assumed the presidency of Argentina a little over a year ago, on Dec. 10, 2015, intent on correcting years of mistakes by his predecessors and eager to cement his place as a leader of significance.


While he has largely succeeded in the first goal, the second remains stubbornly out of reach, and efforts to build an enduring legacy will only grow more complicated in the years to come.

Macri's surprising victory in the 2015 election - polls initially showed him likely to lose outright in October's first round of voting - ended 12 years of rule by Nestor Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.


Macri's triumph stemmed largely from his status:

As the scion of a plutocratic Buenos Aires family, he was the farthest politician possible from the discredited Kirchners, small-time lawyers-cum-politicians from remote Santa Cruz.

For the Kirchners and their Peronist party, politics was akin to warfare.


In their 12 years controlling the presidency - the first four via the late Nestor, the following eight under Cristina, with both pursuing a similar socialist-leaning program - the Kirchners sought popularity through conflict with many adversaries.


That ranged from political challengers, including Macri, and protesting unions to multilateral organizations, foreign countries, multinational oil companies and, most famously, New York hedge funds.


They also thumbed their nose at increasingly voluminous evidence of corruption implicating them and their closest political and business allies.

Macri, by contrast, is a much more subdued and rational leader, both in persona and in policy. Upon taking office, he did away with the cepo, the absurd fixed-currency regime that generated a rampant black market for dollars.


His team settled the self-defeating 15-year dispute with hold-out bond investors, primarily American hedge funds that the Kirchners had labeled "vultures," and brought the country out of a needless default.


Macri has taken measures both to rein in inflation and report price indices faithfully.


Finally, he has distanced his nation from the Kirchners' anti-Western friends, including Iran and Venezuela, while Argentina has emerged as a leading opponent of Latin America's populist left.

These and other long-overdue policy shifts have restored a sense of normalcy to South America's second-largest country. They have also delivered concrete dividends. Most importantly, Argentina now has access to international financial markets, and the government and businesses alike can issue debt at much lower interest rates than in years past.

But while laudable, such accomplishments essentially represent low-hanging fruit.


It will take more than just these easy corrections of the Kirchners' missteps for Macri to consolidate his position and deliver on his promise of reform. Macri himself appears to know that.


This week he admitted, after huddling with his Cabinet to take stock of their progress, that he had raised economic expectations too high and promised "magical" change when he took power a year ago.


More worrying than

his own political missteps

are the economic clouds

still hovering over Argentina.



When it comes to placing his own stamp on the country, Macri so far has faltered.


He has failed to pass any signal legislative initiatives, and congressional opposition has turned into a persistent thorn.


During the past month alone, a coalition of opponents banded together to defeat a government-supported political reform; the lower house passed a budget bill with tax increases, over the administration's objections; and Macri stumbled in offering an amnesty to Argentines who hold cash in offshore accounts.


That amnesty debacle turned a relatively straightforward plan into a national discussion of his family's offshore holdings, which emerged as part of the Panama Papers scandal.

From the outset, one of Macri's governing priorities has been addressing Argentina's increased insecurity, which stems from a wave of street crime around Buenos Aires and the growing presence of transnational drug traffickers.


But his policies appear to emulate the strategies that have failed spectacularly in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. He has called in American and Israeli advisers who favor greater militarization of the police.


His government is packing jails with low-level drug offenders. And he has sought authority to shoot down drug transport planes.


So far, this strategy has failed, and recent polls show that insecurity has displaced inflation as the problem that most worries Argentines.

More worrying than his own political missteps are the economic clouds still hovering over Argentina. The Kirchners built their 12 years in power on the back of an explosive, though unsustainable, recovery from economic collapse, with annual GDP growth averaging 8.7 percent from 2003 to 2008, thanks in large part to the commodities super cycle.


Macri inherited a country in recession, from which it only just emerged in the third quarter of this year.


Owing largely to outside factors, like the economic slowdown in China and the political meltdown in Brazil, most forecasts predict that for the duration of Macri's current term Argentina won't surpass 3 percent growth, a paltry figure for a middle-income nation.

Not surprisingly, Macri's popularity has steadily slipped since his inauguration.


One recent poll from the generally pro-government newspaper Clarin found that 43 percent of respondents had negative views of his presidency, compared to only 26 percent positive.


It's early yet, but these are not encouraging figures for Macri supporters. And with midterm elections next year, Macri's ability to secure a more favorable congressional distribution that would help him push his reform agenda is on the line.

The president has one substantial advantage:

the underwhelming opposition arrayed against him.

The Peronists might remain a more substantial force than Macri's PRO party, which he founded in 2005 and exists as little more than a vehicle for his own political ambitions.


But a steady drumbeat of news about myriad corruption scandals continues to taint the Kirchner legacy and the Peronists.

Moreover, the Peronists remain philosophically divided between amorphous pragmatism, best represented by Congressman Sergio Massa, and the virulently anti-establishment camp personified by Kirchner and her erstwhile finance secretary, Congressman Axel Kicillof.


For now, his opponents' lack of cohesion has allowed Macri to pick off allies among the Peronists and avoid a consistently united front against him.

But if Macri is not in immediate danger of fading into irrelevancy, it still remains unclear what ideological and policy objectives motivate him, beyond simply not being a Kirchner.


A comparison between perhaps the most significant presidencies in Argentina's recent history - that of the Kirchners and of Carlos Menem, from 1989 to 1999 - is instructive:

Both had a clear, coherent agenda.

But Macri's anodyne, technocratic center-rightism has neither the modernizing ethos of Menem's mad dash toward the Washington Consensus, nor the Kirchners' indignation about Menem's overreach and their overriding sense of nationalist spirit.

Of course, if 2016 has revealed anything, it is that there are far worse fates than being led by a bland pragmatist.


The last century of Argentine history offers much the same lesson, and from a policy perspective, Macri's presidency has been tonic for a sickly nation. But this year has also shown the electoral vulnerability, in both hemispheres, of unremarkable if steadfast competence.


Twelve months into his tenure, Macri hasn't done enough to outline a vision for his presidency and protect himself from disappointed voters...