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In his bid to win a second term, Argentina’s president is defying history

THESE HAVE been difficult days for Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s president, and not just because his father, a businessman from whom he was often estranged, died on March 2nd. The previous day he had delivered his annual message to congress, in which he was forced to eat his words. A year ago he had told Argentines that “the worst is over”. Since then the peso has lost half its value, inflation is close to 50% a year, interest rates have soared and the economy has fallen into recession. In return for a $57bn bail-out from the IMF, an institution reviled by many Argentines, Mr Macri has pledged austerity to eliminate the primary fiscal deficit (ie, before interest payments) this year. “Many are going to think, ‘I am worse off’…and they are right,” the president admitted.

Despite all this, Mr Macri, a reformist of the centre-right, is poised to seek a second term at an election in October. That looks quixotic. Even if the economy starts to pick up, as officials insist it will, it will be a while before the average voter feels the benefit. While accepting responsibility for the setback, in his speech the president laid much of the blame on the mess he inherited from Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a populist Peronist, and on circumstances. A rise in interest rates in the United States prompted investors to jib at financing Mr Macri’s gradual fiscal adjustment. To cap it all, drought last year cut Argentina’s exports of farm goods—its mainstay—by some 20%.

Although the government made mistakes, too, these are good excuses. But Latin America’s recent political history suggests they won’t wash with voters. In a paper published in 2015 Daniela Campello and Cesar Zucco of the Funda??o Getulio Vargas, a Brazilian university, analysed 107 presidential elections in the region between 1980 and 2012. They found that in countries that relied on commodity exports and had low domestic savings (and thus high dependence on international capital flows) “voters reward incumbents who rule when international interest rates are low and commodity prices are high.” They punish leaders when the opposite applies. Since neither world interest rates nor commodity prices are under the control of a Latin American government, these results show that “voters do not separate chance from competence when evaluating their presidents,” the authors conclude.

The drought during Mr Macri’s presidency had the same effect as a fall in commodity prices. Argentina’s recent history offers him only faint hope. In 2001-02 a severe recession prompted a change of political control. Economists at J.P. Morgan, a bank, expect a quicker recovery now than back then, starting in the next three months. But they expect the recovery to be slower than that from an earlier recession in 1994-95, during which Carlos Menem, who undertook drastic free-market reform, romped to a second term.

In his speech to congress, Mr Macri laid out his pitch. Casting off his customary icy languor, he found an unsuspected inner passion as he invited voters to take a longer view and to reject the legacy of Ms Fernández’s government, with its corruption, fiscal tricks and hidden inflation. “Argentina is better placed than in 2015,” he said. “We’ve left the swamp.” Lasting change requires patience, he stressed. The institutions of democracy are stronger, corruption is being punished and more infrastructure is being built without padded contracts. “We Argentines have matured,” Mr Macri insisted, and will thus recognise all this.

Perhaps. “Something very unusual has happened,” says Carlos Malamud, an Argentine historian. “While the economy remains very important, it’s not decisive for voters.” Although Mr Macri’s approval rating has fallen to 34%, from 48% a year ago, it has not collapsed. The other issues do matter, especially if his chief opponent is Ms Fernández, as is possible. She faces several corruption cases in the courts. Many Argentines “would hold their nose and vote for Macri to stop Cristina coming back”, says Mr Malamud.

A moderate Peronist, of whom there are several, would be a tougher opponent. Primaries on August 11th will be unusually important in clarifying Mr Macri’s chances, as will several provincial elections before then. It is vital for him that the economy does not get worse, as it might if political uncertainty starts putting renewed pressure on the peso. It helps that he is an effective campaigner, as he showed when pulling off an unexpected victory in 2015. Repeating that would deserve to be called historic.

This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline "Against the odds"
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