Throughout my semester in Argentina, I have had the privilege of watching an unprecedented and contentious election season play out. The elections, a referendum on distinct visions of Argentina’s future, have dominated news broadcasts and even daily discussions with my host family. The omnipresence of political discourse, particularly in a nation with compulsory voting (don’t worry, it is possible to vote in blank), has been a dream come true for an aspiring political functionary like myself. As Argentina chose between the status quo of a tightly regulated economy with an expansive welfare state, and a liberalized future focused on opening up the economy to the international market and dismantling strict capital controls, I found many of my own convictions challenged along the way.
The elections were largely expected to be a long victory lap for the Peronist candidate Daniel Scioli, the Governor of Argentina’s largest province, Buenos Aires. Scioli, who represents the party that has dominated Argentina’s democracy since its inception in 1946 under Colonel Juan Domingo Peron, looked to take the place of term-limited Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. The Peronists, representing a diverse collection of political ideologies and labor unions, have used their populist appeal to reassemble the Argentine welfare state and ‘protect’ the domestic market from the volatile and capitalistic world market. Despite success in this project for nearly a decade, allowing Argentina to emerge from the Crisis of 2001 and weather ensuing default, growth has slowed of late and accusations of corruption have mounted for the incumbent party. This all led to shocking results in the first round of the presidential election in late October, when Scioli found himself surprisingly challenged by Mauricio Macri.
Macri, the Mayor of the Federal Capital (a separate administrative entity from Buenos Aires province, much like our own District of Columbia), offered another vision for Argentina’s future. The outgoing mayor spoke out against corruption, the refusal to negotiate with the holders of Argentina’s defaulted bonds, and Argentina’s increasingly controversial and confrontational foreign policy. He offered an Argentina without strict capital controls that have made exchanging for dollars nearly impossible (and made my trip exceedingly complicated) and instead hopes to create an increasingly open economy based on cooperation with Europe and the United States rather than states like China and Russia. In late October, Macri came within just two points of Scioli, initiating the first runoff election in the history of Argentina’s young democracy. The debate that would engulf the country, between two distinct approaches, left me on the front lines of a historic shift in Argentine politics.
The runoff, occurring on November 22nd after an unprecedented election season which saw Peronists on their heals for the first time in over a decade, featured historic events such as Argentina’s first successful presidential debate between the remaining candidates. The contentious debate spurred a shouting contest between supporters of the two candidates from the balconies behind my apartment, with shouts of “traitor!” directed at Macri and accusations of “liar!” directed at Scioli. On election night, with Macri’s upset win seeming inevitable, people in my upper-class Buenos Aires neighborhood took to the streets to celebrate the dawning of a new Argentina. I joined several other students to go downtown to watch as Macri’s supporters shot off fireworks and blazoned their national flag while reveling in the victory. However, I remain unsure of Argentine’s future, fearing for the safekeeping of its welfare state yet happy that clientalism and corruption have been dealt a blow. One thing is certain, for Argentina the future will not be easy, regaining growth and leaving strict economic regulations behind will impoverish many on the path towards the promise of future prosperity as part of the global economy.