Soccer Team President Wins Mayoral Race

Newly elected mayor of Buenos Aires for the Republican Proposal party, Mauricio Macri, delivers a speech celebrating his win in the runoff election on June 24. (Photo: Juan Mabromata / AFP/Getty Images)

The results sounded more like a low-keyed basketball game than a soccer match, yet when the votes were counted in Buenos Aires' June 24 city election, Mauricio Macri had outscored the federal government's minister of education, Daniel Filmus, by 60 to 40.

Macri, son of a controversial business magnate, is a youngish millionaire who has won fame and glory by building Boca Argentina's winningest soccer team. He not only captured Buenos Aires, but appeared to kick off what looks like a no-holds-barred race for the country's presidency in the approaching October 26th struggle for the "Pink House."

His victory also suggests the emergence of business as an active protagonist in hemispheric politics at a time when "progressive" or "populist" programs here and elsewhere in Latin America seem to be running out of steam.

Macri — whose family has interests in a vast array of business operations that run from the Sevel automobile manufacturing company to the Sol highway building firm and Intron, the company that takes pictures of traffic infractions — has made no secret of his intention to re-install neo-conservative politics and economics at center stage.

Due to sustained 8 percent economic growth over the past four years, and vigorous defense of human rights, the government of Peronist Néstor Kirchner has enjoyed so great a popularity that up to now it has not had to deal with any sizeable opposition. Yet lately a number of warning lights have appeared to cloud the government's popularity — incipient inflation, a potentially explosive energy crisis, political in-fighting and the particular personal style of leadership utilized by President Kirchner.

Not only has Macri's victory tossed firewood to further kindle the country's political heat, in the southern province of Tierra del Fuego a center-leftist candidate, Fabiana Ríos, snatched an unexpected victory for the governorship. Suddenly, Kirchner's rather loose knit forces appear faced with a two-pronged opposition — from the right under Macri's inspiration, and the center-left from dissidents disenchanted with Kirchner.

Even before running for mayor of this mushrooming urban metropolis, Macri had considered the possibility of participating in the presidential race. That interest was clearly expressed barely a day after his victory: "We are going to take our time to study what we can do to consolidate national politics," he confessed in an interview in Clarín on June 26. Assuming his role as de facto opposition leader, he also explained that a victory of conservative forces in the presidential elections is on the books if diverse opposition candidates force a run-off in which they could then join forces.

Macri constructed his victory brick by brick with solid marketing techniques and a "non-ideological" approach to public affairs, appealing to large numbers of "porteño" voters tired of longwinded politicians prone to more promises than solutions. His slogan was "less talk and more action."

Boosted by his charismatic appeal, he went from neighborhood to neighborhood explaining his proposed policies, accompanied everywhere by his also charismatic vice-mayor candidate, Gabriela Michetti, confined to a wheel chair due to an accident.

His supporters covered the city with posters reading, "Buenos Aires is going to be great," "More free education" and "More free medical care," plus others related to garbage collection and public safety. Although he was conveniently unclear on the specifics of these programs, his social-economic position and his clear inclination for neo-conservative economics suggest that when he takes office in December he will inaugurate a "rationalization" program aimed at dealing with featherbedding and making public services more efficient.

That appeared to be the essence of slogans such as a return to "the work ethic" (la cultura de trabajo), which most interpret as a campaign against featherbedding and the introduction of market-made clippers to whip social programs down to size. Trade unions, leftist political groups and diverse social forces are already holding their breath and preparing for what is presumed to be an inevitable confrontation when Macri takes office. However, others believe the new mayor may lean towards the lenient side to forge alliances aimed at eventually capturing the "Pink House."

The generally pro-government Página 12 ventured the following analysis: "Time will tell whether Macri's administration becomes'the stereotype of a rightwing leader or whether his common sense or the limits placed on him by society lead him elsewhere."

There is a sort of unwritten rule in Argentina and Latin America under which the rightwing — which controls the basic levers of power — must assume progressive postures in order to get into power. Once elected, however, they respond to the pressure exerted by foreign investors, powerful local interests, the Catholic Church and the military establishment.

This would appear to explain the course of events in neighboring Uruguay and Brazil, where in spite of progressive rhetoric, no measures have been taken to substantially alter the economic status quo. The exceptions in the present context appear to be Venezuela and Bolivia, where the State is assuming an increasingly important role — especially in the field of energy and natural resources.

During the Cold War, the rightwing was backed up by Washington's anti-communist policies and managed to get political power by means of military coups. United States foreign policy has subsequently taken a clearly business-oriented tilt and this is being reflected increasingly through the appearance of business figures, inexperienced in public administration, on the scene to challenge progressive governments.

In Argentina during the 90's, Peronist Carlos Menem got into power with populist slogans, but once installed he re-directed policies towards openly neo-conservative targets — selling off State-owned companies, an artificial one to one exchange rate, etc.

Across the Andes mountain chain, Chilean millionaire Sebastián Piñera, has said "adios" to followers of former dictator Pinochet and now represents an increasingly potent rightwing alternative to Socialist President Michelle Bachelet.

One of the more picturesque examples of the businessman made politician is Ecuador's wealthy Alvaro Noboa, who was three-time presidential candidate and self-declared champion against corruption. In the country's last presidential election he won the first round against left-leaning Rafael Correa but lost in the run-off.

The problem neo-conservatives face is how to introduce modern market economics in societies suffering from age-long structural deficiencies and simultaneously deal with the difficulties confronted by vast sectors of the population forced to eek out an existence under conditions of extreme poverty, marginalization and lack of education.

The neo-conservative formula is based on pumping up exports and giving tax and other incentives to foreign investors. This produces the appearance of prosperity in reduced sectors of society but the "trickle down" is insufficient to significantly alter the situation of the majority. It also seriously encroaches on local cultural traditions and endangers natural resources, according to those who question the neo-conservative model of development.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Alfred Hopkins.