Argentina has a new president, but the same traditional presidentialist system remains. After more than a decade of the Kirchners in power (2003-2015), the new president Mauricio Macri was elected because he convinced Argentine voters that he was the candidate of “change.” But change from what? The answer to this question is key for understanding the present in Argentina and the region.
The strengthening of executive powers in the recent years might be the Kirchners’ most dubious legacy and it is the context in which to analyze Macri’s first steps as Argentine president.
It is because of this context that the victory won by center-right candidate Macri could be misleading for the elected president if he believes his victory represents a mandate to do his own version of the personalism of the past. In fact, Macri won by a small margin of less than 3 points. He was voted by 51.40% of the electorate versus the 48.60% obtained by the official Peronist candidate Daniel Scioli. In addition to this small margin of victory, Macri will have to govern without a majority in the two houses of congress.
But if Argentine political history is an indicator this relatively small margin of victory does not mean much. Historically in Argentina, new presidents are able to build power as soon as they are elected. This happened before with small or large margins of victory. For example, Nestor Kirchner won in 2003 with small margins and he then was able to increase presidential powers in a manner unseen before in the history of Argentine democracy. On the other hand, like Carlos Menem (1989-1999) before her, Cristina Kirchner won the last presidential elections by wide margins, and for her this meant the “vamos por todo,” that is to say the confirmation of her idea that elections constituted a delegation of power. In other words, Cristina Kirchner believed she no longer needed to provide answers to the press, the opposition and the judicial system. In fact, she launched a campaign to downplay or even harass many of them.
In short, electoral margins are not that important in presidential politics. This is explained by the fact that in Argentina, the President, once elected, and independently of the margins of victory, has a lot of power. Bluntly put, Argentina’s presidential system is on steroids. Historically, presidents have always been powerful in the beginning of their administrations and because of this they have historically confused electoral representation of the citizens with full delegation of power.
A large group of citizens voted for Macri because he promised to change this tradition. Despite past positions aligned with neo-liberalism, Macri told voters that he was not in favor of austerity measures, but that as President he was going to promote developmental economics and reduce poverty. He also told them that military criminals will continue to be prosecuted, that corruption investigations will be supported and that he will be mindful of political differences.
Will he create a multi-party cabinet that reflects these campaign positions? Or will he resort to a populist form of neo-liberalism? In a way, many Argentines do not want him to be the typical strong caudillo president that forgets promises of meaningful citizen participation in governmental decisions. In this sense, populism is neither specifically right nor left. Previous historical experiences with Peronist populism including those of Menem and the Kirchners show that in the beginning of the presidency, a populist style eases the challenges to govern. Eventually, however, this style leads to the development of an authoritarian and delegative practice of democracy as well as significant degrees of political polarization, and eventual increasing isolation in power. Ultimately, and much to their surprise, populist leaders that think themselves to be transcendental ones ultimately find their own decline and defeat, as we have seen for Kirchnerismo in the presidential elections this week. This model might tempt Macri.
Nonetheless, he might realize that he won because he convinced voters that he represented change from the many populist experiences in democratic verticalism, including the Kirchner administration but also the neo-liberal populism of Carlos Menem. Macri soon will show whether he meant what he said.