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Let’s begin by talking about the context. Within the frame of a global financial crisis and having left the climax of the commodities’ boom behind, Latin America is facing an economic landscape of low growth, a return to external restrictions, and tensions in the currency exchange market. According to data by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC, or CEPAL in Spanish), the regional GDP will grow a meagre 0.5% in 2015. This change of economic pace has led to a situation of stagnation or decline of the social indicators which suggests that the region has reached its “distributive peak”, which in turn is reflected on tighter electoral results for left-wing governments, as shown by the cases of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro (a difference of fewer than two points with the opposition) and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff (fewer than three points).
The other side of this decreased electoral performance is the rise of a new right, which is new three basic ways. It is new because it is democratic, because it no longer relies on the military party as way to access power and, except for its most hardcore factions, plays within the rules of the electoral game, competes in elections and when it loses, it accepts its defeat. It is new because it is post-neoliberal, because —at least in public— it does not reclaim the policies of open markets, privatisations, and deregulation typical of the ’90s. And it is new because it is clever enough to show a “social face”: in line with North America’s “compassionate conservatism”, it promises macroeconomic changes and tax reforms but maintaining the welfare systems developed over the last decade.
This Capriles-style right-wing [NB: after Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles], of which Mauricio Macri’s PRO is a paradigmatic example, is putting the continuity of the left-wing governments at risk. Which is why we need to dig deeper, beyond the surface of the outraged references to the electorate’s sudden “right-wing turn” and the supposedly reactionary nature of the middle classes, to understand the reasons behind its growth. And because every democratic alternative has a conceptual base, we can say that the new right’s political philosophy is a protestant ethic of progress via the individual effort of people or families: the idea of rising as a result of our effort or ingenuity has always been an important value for the right, which not only does not reject individualism, but even considers it a key driving force for the progress of society, which must only go as far as providing equal opportunities to citizens so that each one can make it as far as they want or as far as they can. Which is why they often appeal to the second person singular, like [Buenos Aires province governor-elect] María Eugenia Vidal does in her speeches: “I’m talking to you, because you want to be better off…”
This explains, as per [Italian political scientist] Norberto Bobbio’s famous thesis, why the right accepts social differences —ie., inequality— as an inevitable part of any social order in which its members fully exercise their freedom. Without going into deeper debates as to the consequences of this theoretical perspective, let’s say that one of its concrete consequences is a certain vision about the role of the State, society’s place, and the reach of politics: in opposition to a left wing which has traditionally sought its leaders in collective movements (unions, parties, assemblies), the new right finds them in the individual accomplishments of sports, business, and show-business, which allows them to measure individual effort by counting sporting victories, millions of dollars, or TV rating points.
It’s not just Macri and his allies who recruit their candidates from that ’90s-style breeding ground; Daniel Scioli himself —as his political origins reveal— is a product of this new reality. But PRO has gone the furthest. Just like Mexican ex-president Vicente Fox, Chilean ex-president Sebastián Piñera, or US candidate Donald Trump, Macri is a businessman-politician who sports a flexibility unseen in the old leaders of the ideological right like Álvaro Alsogaray, Domingo Cavallo, or Ricardo López Murphy —economists trained in rigid schools of thought, who can be accused of anything except of lacking ideas. Can anyone imagine Alsogaray or Cavallo happily reclaiming the nationalisation of Aerolíneas Argentinas or inaugurating of a statue of Perón with none other than union leader Hugo Moyano? Macri, who moves with the flexibility typical of businessmen, is not bound by that kind of prejudice.
Deliberately away from any dogma, ideological device or political school of thought that may put limits to it, Macrismo is a watered down version of liberalism and conservatism. The former can be seen in certain unconfessed hints of its economic programme and in the modern and globalised style of its leaders (Macri himself, for example, is a divorcee). The latter, in the militant catholicism of many of its members and their opinions on issues such as insecurity and abortion. It does not model itself after the reactionary right of the Spanish PP or the sober Social-Christian centre-right in Germany, but the new anti-political right that enjoyed a period of hegemony in Italy with Silvio Berlusconi and which was begun to thrive in some European countries like Spain, with the growth of Ciudadanos.
Its origins can always be traced back to a crisis, because it is in extreme situations where this kind of deep changes tend to develop: in Italy, the crisis of the post-war system built around the Christian Democracy triggered by the mani pulite [corruption trial]; in Spain, the economic crisis and the collapse of the classic bi-partisan system. In Argentina, the 2001 crisis. Like we mentioned elsewhere, Macrismo is, just like Kirchnerism, a consequence of the December 2001 uprising, which shook up the political conscience not only of the working class, but also of the economic elites and the middle class, as many of its members acquired —through the simple exercise of observing the country go up in flames— a new sensitivity with regards to public issues. This is why —even though within Macrismo there are peronists, radicals, and all the survivors from the old conservative parties— the new element, its truly original contribution to Argentine politics, is having managed to attract, train, and keep an important number of activists that came from the world of business, Catholic volunteering, and, especially, the technocratic NGOs that emerged in the ’90s.
With the boldness of beginners, Macrismo made a few plays which may seem extravagant to traditional political analysis, but which in the end proved to be successful: for example, the candidacy for governor of the Province of Buenos Aires of the deputy mayor of… the City of Buenos Aires, an idea in principle so absurd as nominating, let’s say, the deputy governor of Salta for governor of Jujuy. Unconceivable for a traditional party, the move ignored all the previous knowledge regarding the alleged tension between the city and the province and it revealed, along the way, a deep understanding of some structural changes within the electorate, willing to vote something for president and something different for governor, mayor, or Congress; to support a party one month and another one the following month. In summary, it confirmed that citizenry —even that in the province of Buenos Aires, which was supposedly chained to the will of the Peronist local leaders— is an autonomous and demanding subject, capable of exercising a punishing vote when they think it necessary. The paradox is that it was PRO, which has constantly criticised cronyism and denounced the operations of the parties, the beneficiary of this finding.
As we mentioned at the beginning, the new right that Macri embodies lays out a discourse that combines democratic conviction and social promises, all wrapped up in a vaguely orientalist, new-age aesthetic which the Sunni Kirchnerists find so irritating. But rather than being outraged, it is best to wonder why this discourse sounds plausible to important sectors of society. Turns out that, contrary to what fresh-faced semiologists might think, neither the power of the hegemonic press or media protection are enough to make a society believe in the proposals of a specific candidate.
A possible explanation, then, could be found in the administration of the City of Buenos Aires: Macri did not privatise schools, although the budget for education as a percentage of the total budget was reduced; it did not turn the Metropolitan police into the Ku Klux Klan, although he did allow for unjustified episodes of repression, which, on the other hand, has also happened with the national security forces; and he did not start charging fees for the use of public hospitals or banned people from the province, or from Paraguay, from using them, despite all the inadequacies in the management of public health. In other words, Macri’s promise of keeping up social policies and his late pro-state turn may have sound convincing because his administration of the City of Buenos Aires was mediocre in many respects and, as the Niembro case revealed, a lot more opaque than he pretends, but it was not a neoliberal or ’90s-style administration.
More than ideological, its limit may be geographical. PRO, which from December onwards will rule on the country’s two main districts, moves from the centre to the periphery which, like the historical experiences of Peronism and radicalism show, it is the way political parties are built in Argentina. It obtained its best results in the large urban centres, the interior and north of Buenos Aires, and the south of Córdoba and Santa Fe, which confirms that Kirchnerism suffered, just like in 2009, as a result of its historic confrontation with farmers, a sector it never quite managed to understand.
A party representing the core area of the country? Maybe something else. For better or for worse, and beyond the fluctuations of international prices, futures markets, and hail insurances, we live in the era of commodities, which imposes a double policy barrier on candidates: in right-wing terms, it defines an economy dependent on soy to guarantee the exercise of government, and on left-wing terms, it allows for a wide system of social protection, which to a great extent is a consequence of it. Limited by soy as a problem-solution, the most leftist of governments would be unable to do without glyphosate and the most right-wing president would be unable to do away with the Universal Child Allowance.
It was this iron limit, which defines the exact perimeter of the possibilities of our democracy, which set the tone for a campaign full of surprising programmatic coincidences: though there are different social forces, political coalitions, and leadership structures behind each candidate, both Macri and Scioli promised to reduce income tax, lower export taxes, keep public companies under state control, and launch a plan to build the same number of houses (one million) —all under an ambiguous call for a development model as broad as it is imprecise.
Within this context of coincidences, one of the few clearly identifiable areas in which the candidates disagreed was the peso exchange rate: Macri proposed to float it freely from the first moment of his eventual arrival at the Pink House, and did not even backtrack on this alternative when he decided to replace the most orthodox members of his economic team. Scioli, meanwhile, defends the need to administrate the exchange rate and eventually correct it, but more gradually. This issue is crucial, because the price of the US dollar is the most important price of our economy, and because behind that there is an intense struggle between different social and economic sectors, in which even the establishment is divided.
Having lived them, we all know the differences between a sharp and a smooth devaluation, and this could be a first pillar on which Scioli could build up a campaign on a race which is far from defined, but which will be uphill for him.