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Argentina's Next President Has A Mandate, Not A Blank Check

Election winners Alberto Fernández and Cristina Kirchner will soon take over leadership of the country. But they've also lost momentum already ...

Frente de Todos supporters in Buenos Aires on Oct. 27
Frente de Todos supporters in Buenos Aires on Oct. 27
Eduardo Van der Kooy

-Analysis-

BUENOS AIRES — Alberto Fernández and his running mate, former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, won Argentina's presidential election as expected, but not by the margin that many imagined. The result is that outgoing leader Mauricio Macri and his conservative Cambiemos bloc will be in a stronger-than-anticipated position as an opposition force.

While Fernández's victory in the Oct. 27 election was decisive (the political moderate managed, crucially, to avoid a runoff), it wasn't the walkover he and Fernández de Kirchner delivered two months earlier in the PASO, as the country's open-primary mechanism is known. They have a clear popular mandate, in other words, but can't expect things to be a walk in the park come Dec. 10, when the Argentine presidency officially changes hands.

Just as voters silently shifted toward Fernández​ and his Peronist Frente de Todos coalition in the PASO, this time there was a quiet pivot back to Cambiemos. Why? That's precisely the question Macri and his soon-to-be replacement should both be asking themselves right now.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner remains the stronger leader inside the Frente de Todos.

What makes the narrowing of the electoral gap even more curious is that the government's post-PASO attempts to improve the sinking economy haven't worked. And in the meantime, the value of the U.S. dollar has gone from 45 to 65 Argentine pesos, with an inevitable inflationary effect.

What Macri did accomplish, since the August primary, was to become more visible. He began mingling with people instead of sticking to the screen or political technology. The impact was notable in the center of Argentina and districts like Mar del Plata.

It may be too that Fernández paid a price for ceding his early political independence and instead moving perniciously closer to Fernández de Kirchner. "She and I are one," he said, rather excessively. The former president began, in turn, to acquire increasing prominence as the campaign wound down.

Newly-elected President Alberto Fernández ​and Cristina Fernández on Oct. 27 — Photo: Roberto Almeida Aveledo/ZUMA

It's fair to say to Fernández de Kirchner arouses genuine passions and loyalty among supporters and remains the stronger leader inside the Frente de Todos. But she also generates corresponding fears outside, and so the Fernández duo might do well to reset this political mechanism once in power.

Playing nice

The results in Buenos Aires province reflected the national trend. María Eugenia Vidal, the incumbent governor, lost — to Axel Kicillof, Fernández de Kirchner's former finance minister. And yet, like Macri, she managed to regain some lost ground since the PASO. Most of her support came from the interior of the province.

The elections could also have implications for the country's up-and-coming leaders, especially Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, who beat his Peronist rival by 20 points and is seen more and more as a legitimate rival, among conservatives, to Macri.

But Macri also seems to have benefited somewhat from the results, in part because of the gains he made since the PASO, but also because in defeat, he offered the best version of himself that Argentina has seen in the past four years.

Argentina's transition period is just 40 days and the country's macroeconomic structure is fragile. It didn't go unnoticed, therefore, that Macri was quick to congratulate Fernández and announce an imminent first meeting with the president-elect.

The elections have changed the country's political map.

In fact, on both sides, reactions to the results have been conciliatory and focused on ensuring a smooth transition. Fernández has said collaboration is needed in the "difficult times' ahead, while Kicillof wants his province healed of discord.

The only one not to toe the conciliatory line, it seems, is Fernández de Kirchner, who warned Macri to act responsibly until the last day of his administration, forgetting, apparently, that when she left office in 2015, she refused to hand him the presidential baton — even though the Argentine people had given him their votes. She explained it all in her fiery, offensive book Sinceramente.

Her running mate's logic seems to be to avoid any controversy before December. After that Fernández will tackle problems like turning the heterogeneous Frente de Todos into an efficient administrative machine.

The elections have changed the country's political map. The victors were not given a blank check: They have less than half of all votes cast — unlike Fernández de Kirchner's 54% victory in 2011 — and should therefore shelve any hegemonic designs they might have entertained.

Cambiemos, for its part, is set to hold 115 seats in parliament and 30 senators, and there will be other, smaller parliamentary blocks that can balance the legislative activity. ​Macri's 30 campaign rallies also showed that thousands of Argentines are still ready, in spite of the economic battering they have taken, to stand up for ethical, transparent government.

It is a warning to the next government, but also a signal to the judiciary. Since the PASO, courts and judges have starting to go easy on corruption cases from the Kirchner years, including several with implications for the new vice-president and her relatives.

The immediate duty of Macri and Fernández is to assure orderly governance in transition, which has been one of our weaknesses. And indeed, given what's happened of late the nearby countries of Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador, the world is paying particularly close attention.

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