, BUENOS AIRES, Dec 10 – Business-friendly conservative Mauricio Macri takes office as Argentina’s next president Thursday in a ceremony boycotted by his predecessor Cristina Kirchner, irate over a protocol tiff that escalated into a court battle.
Macri’s inauguration marks the start of a new era for Argentina: a tilt to the right after 12 years under Kirchner and her late husband Nestor, the left-wing power couple that led the country back to stability after an economic meltdown in 2001.
Macri has vowed to reboot Latin America’s third-largest economy, which is slumping back toward recession, by ending protectionist import restrictions, cutting heavy taxes on agricultural exports and scrapping the official exchange rate puffing up the Argentine peso.
But the national conversation heading into the big day was all about the squabble between him and Kirchner.
It started with a disagreement about where the inauguration ceremony should take place.
Macri, 56, wanted to take the oath of office at Congress, then travel the two kilometers (1.2 miles) to the iconic presidential palace, the Casa Rosada, to receive the presidential sash and scepter from Kirchner.
Kirchner, 62, insisted the whole thing could be done at Congress — in line with the constitution and the tradition she and Nestor set out.
She accused Macri of disrespecting her when they discussed the matter on the phone.
“It makes no sense to change venues to hand over three things. Once he takes the oath of office, it takes 38 seconds to hand over the emblems. Somebody seems to be getting a little carried away,” said her cabinet chief, Anibal Fernandez.
Determined to have his moment in the sun at the famous pink palace where iconic leaders like Juan and Evita Peron rallied the masses of yore, Macri took the matter to court, arguing Kirchner would in fact cease to be Argentine president at midnight.
The court ruled in his favor, deciding the country would have three presidents in a matter of hours: Kirchner until midnight, incoming Senate president Federico Pinedo until the inauguration ceremony, and Macri thereafter.
– ‘Sea change coming’ –
“There’s a sea change coming,” Macri vowed on November 22, when he won a run-off election against Kirchner’s chosen successor, Daniel Scioli.
Since then, his coalition, “Let’s Change,” has been taking a long victory lap as Macri has stressed his pro-market credentials.
He has named a like-minded cabinet, with ministers hailing from the ranks of companies like IBM, Shell, General Motors and Deutsche Bank.
He also scored a win with the resignation of central bank chief Alejandro Vanoli, who had questioned Macri’s plans to let the peso float freely, likely leading to a sharp devaluation.
He replaced him with economist and former banker Federico Sturzenegger.
A social conservative, Macri opposed the legalization of gay marriage in Argentina in 2010, is firmly against abortion and once criticized what he called “uncontrolled immigration” under Kirchner.
On the diplomatic front, Argentina is poised to pivot away from its chummy ties with Latin America’s left-wing governments, and back toward the United States and Europe.
His government will be tasked with finding an exit from Argentina’s drawn-out fight with American hedge funds that are demanding full repayment of debt that Buenos Aires defaulted on in 2001.
Negotiations to resolve the standoff broke down under the confrontational Kirchner. The messy legal battle has derailed the country’s efforts to restructure its debt and left it cut off from global capital markets.
But Macri’s room for maneuver will be limited by Congress, where the Kirchners’ coalition will be the largest party in the lower house and have an absolute majority in the Senate.
Macri, the son of a wealthy businessman, rose to fame as the president of Argentina’s most popular football club, Boca Juniors, during a storied string of trophy wins.
The twice-divorced father of four, who is married to a former model, had been Buenos Aires mayor since 2007.