Argentina's New President Mauricio Macri Promises a 'New Era'

Macri pledged to move the country away from the confrontational politics of outgoing president Cristina Fernández in an inauguration ceremony that came after two weeks of bitter bickering over the handover protocol.
December 10, 2015, 7:43pm
Imagen por Ricardo Mazalan/AP

Mauricio Macri became Argentina's new president on Thursday, promising to move the country away from the polarization and economic problems that have dogged national politics in recent years.

"A new era is coming. One of dialogue, construction and teamwork. I am convinced that, if we Argentines unite, we'll be unstoppable. Let's go Argentina!" Macri said in his inaugural address to Congress.

Macri's call for dialogue was also a direct dig at the outgoing administration of President Cristina Férnandez de Kirchner whose two terms — following directly on from the one of her late husband Néstor Kirchner — were marked by her confrontational style, as well as statist policies. Together the couple dominated Argentine politics for 12 years to the point of being given their own "ism" — Kirchnerismo.

"We cannot let confrontation occupy the center stage," Macri said in his speech. "The country has people with different ideas, but it is not divided."

As well as promising a new style, Macri committed himself to a "merciless" pursuit of corruption, and to "fighting the drug trade like no government has before."

Related: Argentina Moves to the Right as Mauricio Macri Wins Presidential Runoff

After his speech, the newly inaugurated president was driven to the Casa Rosada presidential palace in a motorcade through central Buenos Aires where municipal workers had been busily painting over graffiti scrawled on the subway stations and elsewhere along the route on the morning of the ceremony.

Cheering crowds waving Argentine flags lined the route. "This day is just as important as when we celebrated the return to democracy in 1983", a Macri voter told Todo Noticias, a local news channel.

Macri had hoped to receive the presidential sash and baton from outgoing president Fernández in the Casa Rosada but she wasn't there — just as she didn't attend the inauguration ceremony in the Congress.

Ever since Macri beat Fernández's chosen successor in the presidential runoff elections on November 22, the transition period has been dominated by a spat over handover protocol.

It began when Macri went to visit Fernández on the morning after his victory over Daniel Scioli — the governor of the province of Buenos Aires — and told local reporters that the meeting had been "a waste of time."

In the days that followed members of his transition team repeatedly complained about lack of cooperation from the outgoing administration, though the most visible clashes focused on the symbols rather than the substance of power. Fernández wanted to hand over the presidential sash and baton in Congress, as has been the practice since 2003. Macri wanted to reestablish the older tradition of doing this in the Casa Rosada.

The bickering turned particularly bitter this week with Fernández sharing her version of the final phone call Macri made to her on the subject.

"I told him that this was not his birthday party, but the day on which he takes office as president of all Argentines," Fernández wrote on her website and then posted the account on her Facebook page where it was shared over 40,000 times.

The outgoing president said Macri had shouted at her and demanded that she fully cooperate with "his ceremony," and that she had to remind him that "he is a man and I am a woman and it is not right for him to treat me in this way."

Photo by Natacha Pisarenko

The argument became the favorite topic of conversation, with many Argentines embarrassed by the way its pettiness was overshadowing the political moment.

"Even when power was handed from dictators to elected presidents, protocol and traditions have never been a source of disagreement," historian Daniel Balmaceda told VICE News. "It's not just about handing over the symbols of power, but also about turning over the seat of government".

Related: Who Killed Alberto Nisman? – In Search of Truth in Argentina

The soap opera over the sash and the baton appeared fueled by the absence of clear signals of what Macri's promises of "change" will really mean on the ground.

Macri remains unclear about how he will address Argentina's severe economic difficulties, including a fiscal deficit estimated at 7.5 percent of GDP, an overvalued Argentine peso and inflation hovering at 25 percent per year.

The 56-year-old civil engineer — whose election was viewed as a lurch to the right and was enthusiastically welcomed by the markets — kept his references to the economy notably vague in his inauguration speech.

"Our priority will be to achieve a country with equal opportunities for all, where nobody will go hungry," he said. "The state will be present where it needs to be present, especially for those that need us most."

The new president will also have to reach out to the opposition, because his governing coalition will not have a majority in the Senate.

"Although people voted for Macri for change, everybody has a different interpretation of change," Maria Esperanza Casullo, a political scientist from Rio Negro University told VICE News, adding that she thought the new president may face his biggest problems from powerful unions rather than opposition parties.

The spat over protocol in the lead up to Thursday's inauguration also highlighted the importance of personality politics in Argentina.

The son of a very wealthy businessman and former kidnap victim who entered politics after running the Boca Juniors soccer club for 12 years, Macri lacks the charisma that marked the Kirchner years. He has, however, gone to great lengths to portray himself as a politician who wants to establish an emotional relationship with his voters.

Related: Privilege, Trauma, Political Opportunity and Luck Mark Argentina's New President

"I want to tell you that I will always be sincere. I think that's the base of the trust you have in me and that I propose to preserve," he said in his inaugural address.

Macri will have a hard time convincing the hard-core following of Cristina Fernández, who made her last appearance as president all dressed in white in front of tens of thousands of supporters who had gathered in front of the presidential palace.

"The greatest thing I have given the Argentine people is empowerment," Fernández said at the end of the speech on Wednesday night during which the crowd spent much of the time singing, jumping and waving flags. "I want to thank you for your happiness, thank you for your love".

Twelve hours later a different crowd gathered in the same square to applaud a different president.

"Believe in yourselves, I am here today because I believe in you and I need you do the same," Macri said from a balcony on the Casa Rosada. After that he removed the presidential sash and started dancing.

Video via YouTube

Follow Remi Lehmann on Twitter: @remilehmann