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

Mauricio Macri's dramatic victory in Sunday's presidential runoff follows a dramatic life story marked by family wealth, a kidnapping, sporting titles, meditation and almost choking on a false mustache.

by Gaston Cavanagh
Nov 23 2015, 10:10pm

Imagen por Natacha Pisarenko/AP

Mauricio Macri's life is stacked full of moments he points to as transformative experiences, not least the time in August 1991 when he was in a cellar and inside a coffin with his hands tied, praying for his life.

The then 32-year-old member of Argentina's jet set had been kidnapped from one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the capital Buenos Aires. The ordeal lasted for two weeks and only ended when his very wealthy family paid an eight million dollar ransom.

"From the moment I was liberated I started to live life in a very different way," Macri writes on his website. "I found that the uncertainty of power pushed me forward."

Macri now rarely talks about that event but, some reports have claimed, it was during the kidnapping that he decided he wanted to become president of Argentina.

On December 10 he will become just that.

Macri's narrow victory over the government-backed candidate Daniel Scioli in Sunday's runnoff election marks the end of 12 years of Kirchnerismo — the word used to describe the state-centered policies and flamboyant style of outgoing president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her predecessor and late husband Néstor Kirchner.

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

It was an extraordinary feat that will make Macri — with his conservative market-friendly program — only the third non-Peronist president since the end of military rule in 1983. Both the others were from the Radical Party, and neither finished their terms.

Raúl Alfonsín left office a few months before the end of his term in 1989 in the middle of a major economic crisis characterized by hyperinflation. Fernando de la Rúa flew out of the Casa Rosada in a helicopter two years into his term in the midst of a major debt crisis in 2001.

Macri has no links to the Radical Party. His pedigree is firmly in the business sector, and the business class.

After studying civil engineering in the Catholic University of Argentina in the 1980s, Macri worked for a number of major companies including Citibank and the family business empire Grupo Macri. It was his jump into sport — as the manager of the Boca Juniors soccer club between 1995 and 2007 — that would provide the springboard into politics.

He brought a modern business vision to the Buenos Aires-based club, created an investment fund, and remodelled the stadium. The titles came rolling in. Macri often uses phrases such as "unique personal experience" to describe his own personal passage through the club.

While still at Boca he founded the Commitment for Change party in 2003, though he didn't win his first election until 2007 when he became mayor of Buenos Aires through another party called Republican Proposal. He was reelected to the position four years later with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Guided by Ecuadorian political consultant Jaime Durán Barba — his main strategist since his first election as mayor of the capital — Macri has now not only delivered the biggest blow for many years to the Peronist movement by snatching the presidency in Sunday's poll. His candidate, María Eugenia Vidal, also won the governorship of the all-important Peronist bastion of the province of Buenos Aires in the first round of elections last month.

Macri's victory was based on his ability to persuade about half the electorate of the need to move away from the policies and style of the Kirchners.

"Our job over the last two years was to convince people that things don't have to be this way, and I think that we did it," the journalist, writer and Macri campaign worker Hernán Iglesias Illia told VICE News. It was, he said, difficult to move the electorate out of a "defensive position" with regards to "the rich kid."

Macri also learned political nuance that took some of the edge off his right wing reputation and cold business image.

From announcing he would privatize pretty much everything, Macri the candidate moved to promising to maintain state ownership of companies that are working well under state control. And after becoming the face of generally feared economic austerity he began to pledge to maintain subsidies for those in need.

Marci went further with his stance on social issues. He replaced comments in which he said he believed homosexuality to be an illness with expressions of respect for equal marriage rights. The man who claimed he embodied change seemed ready to change himself.

Macri, now 56 and the father of four children, has also mined his family relations for ways of softening his message.

His youngest daughter, Antonia, has travelled with him throughout the presidential campaign. He regularly calls Juliana Awada — his fashion-concious third wife who also comes from Argentina's business elite — his "magician." He credits her with bringing out his more human side in everything from shaving off his mustache to spending more time with the family and introducing him to meditation.

The hard-nosed businessman told one interviewer that he had gone to see a buddhist "harmonizer" who "did me a lot of good, helping me to know myself and liberate the energies one has inside."

Even the couple's wedding produced another formative dramatic experience in Macri's life when he almost choked to death on a false mustache he was wearing while singing.

Macri, also, appears set to soon liberate himself fully from association with an investigation into a 2009 case of illegal phone tapping that targeted a former brother-in-law and a spokesman for victims of the terrorist attack on a Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1985 in which 85 people died. Macri has said that the spying was all set up by the Kirchner government.

The final assault to end Kirchnerismo began, for Macri, when he announced his intention to run for president two years ago. By the time he did it again this year — within a broader alliance called Let's Change — he had to brush off comments from his father suggesting he was not really cut out for the job. "He has the mind to be president but not the heart," Franco Macri had said in an interview. "It is a vocation."

From the perspective of the international markets, Marcri's imminent inauguration may appear like a return to business rationale after the highly politicized years of the Fernández presidency. From the perspective of Macri's more personal story, he has made it this far as much thanks to complex cocktail of privilege, near death experiences, the ability to spot and jump at political opportunity, and luck.

Related: Argentina's Presidential Candidates Promise Calm After the Storms of the Kirchner Era

Follow Gaston Cavanagh on Twitter: @gastoncavanagh