BUENOS AIRES – For the last 99 years, the presidency of Argentina has rotated between Peronists – Juan Domingo Perón and his populist followers – and reactionary generals. Every so often, centrists from the Radical Civic Union were voted into office, but their terms ended quickly, in resignations or coups.
In Sunday’s election, Argentina’s voters broke the pattern: for the first time in almost a century, the president will not be a Peronist, a Radical, or an army general. It is difficult to overstate the significance of the occasion. According to Héctor Schamis, a political scientist at Georgetown University, if a similar political change had occurred in France or Brazil, the country’s citizens would be celebrating the birth of a new republic.
Argentina’s new president-elect, Mauricio Macri, an engineer by training, is often described in the international press as “center-right.” But that label is not quite correct. In Argentina, the left-right divide has been blurred by the policies of the hydra-headed Perónist Justicialist Party, which privatized state companies in the 1990s, only to re-nationalize them later. Moreover, “center-right” often means “conservative,” and Macri’s victory will not “conserve” the status quo.
Macri is best described as a “liberal” – in the European sense of the word. That means, first of all, respect for Argentina’s democratic institutions, badly damaged after a decade of rough handling by Presidents Néstor and Cristina Kirchner. It also means more market-friendly economic policy.