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Welfare state vs. neo-liberalism clash in Argentine vote

Argentina's voters have a choice between contrary visions of their country in a historic election runoff that pits 12 years of a robust welfare state against neoliberalism. Irene Caselli reports from Buenos Aires.

If you had asked Norberto Errico a month ago to place a bet on who would become Argentina's next president, he would have said Daniel Scioli, the handpicked successor to President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, had the best chances among all candidates.

Errico is a staunch supporter of Mauricio Macri, the outgoing mayor of Buenos Aires and main opposition candidate, but felt little hope as presidential elections approached on October 25. All polls were giving Scioli, the outgoing governor of the Buenos Aires province, the most populous in Argentina, a significant lead over Macri.

The 36-year-old taxi driver thought that, after serving two consecutive terms, Fernandez de Kirchner would mobilize her party machine fully in order to ensure her candidate's victory. Under Argentina's constitution, the president is barred from running again until 2019.

But Errico - and just about everyone else watching the election - was in for a surprise. Scioli's performance was far from what friends or foes had imagined: He came out of the first round with a meager three-point lead.

As Argentina votes in the first runoff election in its history on Sunday, the scenario has changed completely. Now polls put Macri ahead of Scioli by at least four percentage points - some polls give him a 12-point advantage.

Daniel Scioli and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner

Scioli's weak showing in the first round of elections came as a surprise since he is backed by Kirchner

How did Macri become so popular? Are Argentines determined to move away from Kirchnerism, the political movement named after President Fernandez de Kirchner and her late husband and predecessor in office, Nestor Kirchner, that marked the past 12 years?

"It is mainly a vote against Cristina," Errico says. "It's unclear what Scioli wants. He stands for Kirchnerism, and people don't want Kirchnerism anymore."

Depending on your political stance, Kirchnerism represents one of two things: an ideology that offered much-needed social welfare programs for the country's poorest, focusing on health care and education, or a corrupt government concentrating power around a president who overspent on populist schemes, leading the country into high inflation rates and stagnant growth.

'Yes, we can'?

It seems that, somewhere down the line, people started asking for something different

Macri's chief campaign strategist, Marcos Pena, who has worked with the leader of the Let's Change coalition over the past 14 years, believes that all the hard work would have not paid off had it not been for people's desire to create change.

"Our strongest rivals were not Scioli or [the other opposition candidate Sergio] Massa in the first round, but resignation and fear, frustration, the feeling that this country will never change, and that this cannot be done," Pena told DW. "What happened in the first round on October 25 carried such an intense emotional weight that is still lingering."

In his final words at the closing rally on Thursday, Macri repeated "Let's Change!", as his supporters chanted "Si se puede," Spanish for "Yes, we can!"

Different visions

Errico works 14 hours a day to earn a living and knows the city of Buenos Aires very well.

"If I compare the work of Scioli in the Buenos Aires province with the work of Macri in the city, Scioli hasn't done much. On the other hand, Macri over the past eight years has transformed the city, investing in public transport, culture, security and infrastructure. Now it's one of the best the world. Even tourists say that," says Errico.

Mauricio Macri

Macri has captured the imaginations of voters looking for change

But things look radically different if you stand by Scioli and the Kirchners.

Daiana Garrido was 15 years old when her father was laid off from the publishing company he worked for. It was 1997 and Argentina's neoliberal policies of privatization and pegging local currency to the dollar were starting to run out of steam. The family was left with no income and Garrido's father eventually moved to Spain to find work and send money home. Garrido, her two siblings and her mother did not see him for eight years.

"I don't feel represented at all by Macri. When he talks of labor market flexibility and a neoliberal model, I lived through that already. I know what it means to receive a layoff letter and think that the world is falling apart when you're 15," says Garrido, who is now 34 and works in a distance learning project at the education ministry.

She was at a pro-Scioli rally organized by researchers who have received a boost during the past 12 years under the Kirchners. Their slogan was: "Yes to science, no to Macri."

Argentinien Wahl - Daiana Garrido

Scientists campaigned against Macri at a recent election event

These supporters believe that the economy is much more stable now. Even though Argentina faces rising inflation and stagnant growth, this is not the first economic crisis that Argentina is facing. In the 1980s, there was hyperinflation, and prices went up on a daily basis. In 2001, the country defaulted on $100 billion - at the time the biggest sovereign debt default in history. They believe Macri will bring the country back to the previous crises by following the same neoliberal model.

On Thursday, in his closing rally in the Kirchnerist stronghold of La Matanza, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Scioli said Macri had made a deal with the devil. "It's very serious this deal with the devils that he has made with the vulture funds, with the International Monetary Fund that wants to impose on us getting rid of subsidies."

Whatever the result of Sunday's runoff election in Argentina, it will represent the end of an era. If Macri wins, it will be a clear demonstration of the people's desire for change. If Scioli wins, he will have to offer some of the change for which many Argentines have been calling.

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