BUENOS AIRES – The year now ending will go down in Argentine history for Peronism returning to power amid a new economic crisis, but also for the landmark signified by a non-Peronist president, Mauricio Macri, being able to complete his full term in office in a way not seen in the current democracy.
Two scenes portray 2019 in the Southern Cone country: that of a triumphant Alberto Fernandez grabbing the presidential baton on Dec. 10, and the other, more panoramic, shows a country with high levels of poverty, which in the first half of the year affected 35.4 percent of the population, and according to experts reached 40 percent by the year’s end.
The origin of the present recession – Argentina has been hit by repeated crises in the last half century – goes back to April 2018, when an abrupt devaluation of the peso against the dollar, added to the consequences that a widespread drought had on agriculture, led the 2015-2019 Macri administration to seek a rescue worth millions from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Faced with basic economic problems, political leaders kicked off the year with the Oct. 27 presidential election in mind. That would be preceded by the primaries on Aug. 11.
The first bombshell came one Saturday in May, when the influential former President Cristina Fernandez, who was in office from 2007 to 2015 and is accused of corruption, announced on Twitter that she had chosen her former Cabinet chief, Alberto Fernandez, as candidate for the presidency, with herself as vice president.
Surprised not only by the decision of the widow of another ex-president, Nestor Kirchner, who governed Argentina from 2003 to 2007, to remain at a second level, but also to choose for the presidency a man with whom she had been at daggers drawn for more than a decade, and who became one of her most vocal critics in the last years of her presidency.
From the start, while the two Fernandez candidates managed to unify the main segments of the Peronist movement and were leading in the polls – ahead of the candidacy of Macri, who chose to run for reelection – many analysts and members of the opposition asked whether the attorney and university professor was going to be a kind of puppet of the former president.
After a turbulent electoral campaign, the Aug. 11 primaries were open, simultaneous and obligatory, and though in theory they served for citizens to elect the final candidates for president and vice president, in practice they only acted as a comprehensive electoral survey due to the decision of all parties not to present more than a list for a coalition.
But that vote changed everything. Alberto and Cristina Fernandez not only got the most votes, but they topped Macri and his running mate, the dissident Peronist Miguel Angel Pichetto, by 16 percent.
Added to that blow against the then-ruling party – which pollsters considered insurmountable with a view to the October election – was the effect it had on the markets, which reacted adversely to the win by Fernandez, always critical of financial speculation.
Such was the case that Aug. 12 will always be a black spot on Argentina’s economic calendar. That day the Buenos Aires stock market crashed almost 40 percent and the value of the dollar rose 19 percent. The turmoil continued and led the Macri administration to announce measures to ease the effects of the new devaluation – and the inflation it caused – on the already battered family budgets.
While economic activity – which throughout 2018 had fallen by 2.5 percent – had shown a slight improvement last July, from August on the crash continued.
Despite the defeat in the primaries and the surveys against him, Macri did not give up and decided to hit the campaign trail around the country to win votes with “Yes we can” marches, in which he spoke out against a return to Kirchner Peronism, which he accused of being a corrupt and badly managed movement.
The crowds that Macri mobilized during his electoral tour were not enough to win on Oct. 27, though he did come closer to his rival with 40.28 percent of the vote against 48.24 percent by the Fernandez pair.
Following a peaceful transition but in a complicated international context, with strong social protests in such countries as Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia, Alberto and Cristina Fernandez were sworn in before Congress on Dec. 10.