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Argentina's president-elect Macri promises an end to divisive politics (+video)

Opposition candidate Mauricio Macri won Sunday's presidential election. But his fight's not over as the outgoing president's party retains a strong grip on the levers of power.

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    Argentina's president-elect Mauricio Macri listens to a question during a press conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. Macri won a runoff election against ruling party candidate Daniel Scioli, putting an end to the era of President Cristina Fernandez, who along with her late husband dominated the country's politics for 12 years.
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Mauricio Macri has upended Argentina's political establishment by defeating the ruling leftist party, in power for more than 12 years, in Sunday's election. 

Mr. Macri, the scion of an influential family and a former president of a popular soccer clubs, tapped into a groundswell of support among voters fatigued by the abrasive leadership of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.  

"A totally new form of politics has emerged," says Carlos Germano, an independent political analyst. He said Macri would bring a style of leadership based on building consensus.

In a news conference on Monday, Macri hinted at this new political culture. "The plan is to govern for everyone," he said, adding that he would seek cross-party dialogue. “Progress,” he said in his victory speech hours earlier, "will not be the result of one enlightened person," alluding to President Kirchner and other past leaders seen as centralizing power in the presidency and diminishing the role of other branches of the government.

That said, Argentina’s Peronist party movement, which includes Kirchner’s party, has dominated politics here for seven decades. And outsiders like Macri have typically struggled to govern: Twice since Argentina's return to democracy in 1983, non-Peronist leaders have exited prematurely. Macri, who takes office on Dec. 10, will have to broker deals with a Peronist-dominated Congress, Peronist governors, and influential trade unions also aligned with the movement.

"He's the fresh breath of air that Argentina needs," says Macarena Martínez, a dentist who was celebrating the election result late Sunday night. "But it's going to be tough. I hope the Peronists channel their energy to build a better country."

Shock-therapy politics

Macri won with 51.4 percent of the vote in Sunday's runoff election, beating Daniel Scioli, who ran as Kirchner's successor. Macri has promised market-oriented reforms to revive the economy. These could include a currency devaluation, lower energy subsides, and easing protectionist policies like currency controls. He is also likely to distance Argentina from Latin America's hard-left governments like that of Venezuela.

But his small margin of victory means he must be cautious about the speed and depth of any economic reforms that cause short-term pain. His mandate for change is less than he would have hoped for, analysts say.

"If Macri commits the error of executing shock-therapy politics with a high social cost, he would destroy all possibility of gathering power to lead the country," Dante Caputo, a foreign minister under former President Ricardo Alfonsín, a non-Peronist leader in the 1980s, wrote in the newspaper La Nación last weekend.

'The real Macri in power'

Still, Macri has unexpectedly reshaped Argentina's political landscape. Against the odds, he projected himself beyond the city of Buenos Aires, where he is currently mayor, through strategic alliances with other parties, and ran a successful national campaign. Crucially, María Eugenia Vidal, a rising star in his party and his deputy mayor, won the coveted governorship of Buenos Aires Province, a Peronist stronghold that is home to more than a third of the country.

"With a strong presidency and Buenos Aires Province under his control, this would generate new negotiating platforms," says Julio Burdman, an Argentine political analyst.

As mayor of the capital, Macri honed his negotiating skills early on in his dealings with the trade unions after he moved to slash jobs.

And as Peronism regroups and politicians battle for leadership, Macri has a window to lay the groundwork for his presidency, says Juan Cruz Díaz, a director at the Cefeidas Group, a political risk analysis firm here.

"Peronism will be bruised," Mr. Díaz says. "[Macri] will have six months to a year while [Peronists] reorganize to generate some quick wins." These could include creating a more open relationship with the news media, with whom Kirchner clashed, and boosting public finances by enticing farmers to sell grain harvests for export rather than hoarding stocks in anticipation of a currency devaluation. 

Macri will need to appease leftist factions that were crucial to his winning coalition, principally the Radical Civic Union. However, analysts say he may be able to sideline that party. 

Some have drawn parallels to 2003, when the president's late husband Néstor Kirchner became president. He had promised common goals for Peronism and an end to the "messianic" leadership of his predecessor, President Carlos Menem. But once in office, the Kirchners ended up mirroring Mr. Menem's neo-populist style. 

"Which will be the real Macri in power?" asks Federico Finchelstein, an Argentine historian at the New School for Social Research in New York. "The one of the campaign, who promised to elevate politics to dialogue, or the one that creates a new form of populism?"

 
 
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