But will voters seize the opportunity?

Our endorsement for Argentina’s presidential election

On Sunday, October 25th, Argentines go to the polls to choose the successor of Cristina Kirchner –the current president– as well as members of the lower and upper houses of Congress. Twelve years have passed since Nestor Kirchner –the current president’s husband– came to power inaugurating an era of populist, authoritarian government. While the Kirchners benefited tremendously from the commodities boom that increased the prices of Argentina’s farm exports, permitting an exceptional spending increase in social programs, they took the chance to amass power through the adoption of a confrontational style and the total disregard for the rule of law.

The Kirchner era leaves an Argentina with high levels of poverty (despite huge increases in social spending), an annual inflation rate in the high 20s, a destroyed national statistics agency, an unbearable tax burden, a closed economy, plummeting educational standards, increasing crime rates, an increasing budget deficit, a lack of access to international capital markets, a divided society, a weakened rule of law, a growing threat of drug trafficking and narco-related violence, and a myriad of corruption scandals going all the way up to the president herself.

So how is it possible for the current president to leave office with approval ratings nearing 50% with such an appalling record? The truth is most Argentines haven’t yet forgotten the traumatic experience of the last non-Peronist government which had to leave office in 2001 after two years in power amidst the worst economic crisis in the country’s history –which, it should be noted, was the inheritance of a previous decade of Peronist government during the 1990s. Many regard the relative economic stability of the Kirchner era as good enough and are willing to forgive the government’s excesses and abuses of power in exchange for immediate economic certainty. The problem is, sooner or later (and it looks like it’ll be sooner rather than later), someone will have to clear up the mess being left by 12 years of kirchnerismo too. The economic imbalances are just too many to keep things the way they are. Many voters may not have realized this yet (or they may not want to realize it), but whoever wins the election will have to make significant adjustments on the way the economy is run.

But even more important than the economy –in our view–, is the country’s return to a democracy based on the rule of law instead of the rule of the charismatic leader in charge (a trademark of Peronism). The worst legacy of the Kirchner era will not be their economic incompetence, but their total disregard for and frontal attack on the basic institutions of liberal democracy: the rule of law, an independent judiciary and a free press (and we could actually add fair elections, since they have perpetuated a voting system which favors electoral fraud). This was the first time that Peronism a self-described “movement” created in the mid-twentieth century by a military general who combined elements of authoritarianism, populism, nationalism and trade unionism governed the country for three consecutive terms. If Ms. Kichner’s heir, Daniel Scioli, comes to power winning a fourth term for the Peronist “movement”, it would only reinforce the party's grip on the Argentine state, undermining even more Argentina’s liberal democracy and making it look more and more like a one-party state in the mold of Mexico’s PRI.

So who are the candidates running to succeed Ms Kirchner? On the government side, we have Front for Victory (Peronist) candidate Daniel Scioli, the current governor of Buenos Aires province –the most populous one in the country, which concentrates almost 40% of the population. Mr. Scioli entered politics during the 1990s, when Peronism was on the center-right spectrum (the “movement” has the tendency to change ideology as frequently as it is convenient to keep power, which is, in the end, its only goal). While in the 1990s Mr. Scioli used to speak about the great progress achieved by the Peronist government of Carlos Menem regarding the privatizations done and overall liberalization of the economy, he now warns voters that the opposition wants to take the country back to the “neoliberal” 1990s. To be fair, this sounds more like a speech designed to appease Ms. Kirchner’s hardline followers than a manifestation of Mr. Scioli’s true beliefs. He is perceived as a pragmatist who would probably govern from the center and return to “normal” economic practices (that’s why he was never the preferred option of hardline kirchnerites, but it was their only competitive option).

On the opposition side, there are two main alternatives. The candidate with more chances to force a runoff with Mr. Scioli –who leads in the polls–, is Buenos Aires City mayor Mauricio Macri, from the center-right PRO party, who allied himself with the centrist Civic Coalition and the centrist Radical Civic Union to form “Cambiemos” (Let’s Change). Mr. Macri has campaigned on a platform of poverty reduction, respect for the rule of law, fight against drug traffickers and social unity. He proposes a return to a more market-friendly Argentina, integrated on the world stage and open to trade and investment. He also promises to keep social programs for those who need them and create real jobs. His social program is actually more ambitious than the government’s: he wants to introduce a universal citizens’ income for children and retirees in order to eliminate corruption-ridden focalized programs.

The third candidate is a dissident Peronist from the Renewal Front and a current member of Congress, Sergio Massa, who proposes tougher crime laws and an economic platform somewhere in the middle between the other two candidates.

In order for Mr. Scioli to avoid a runoff, he would need to garner 45% of the vote or 40% with a difference of 10 points over the second-highest vote getter, which all polls indicate will be Mr. Macri. The latest polls show a runoff can be neither guaranteed nor discarded. The candidates have been very stable around the 40/30/20 marks respectively, which makes a prediction of what can happen almost impossible.

Even though the three main candidates represent a break with Ms. Kirchner’s style of governing, Argentina’s political system desperately needs real change. And only a change of governing party would provide that. On this election we have no doubt Mr. Macri and his Cambiemos coalition offer the best chance for Argentines who want a return to liberal democratic government, a sensible economic program and a free society. And he turns out to be the tactical vote to force a runoff too. The choice is easy. On Sunday, the freedom-oriented choice in Argentina is Mr. Macri and Cambiemos.