Macri, millionaire president facing heave in Argentina election

Buenos Aires (AFP) –


Critics of Mauricio Macri say he has floated above the maelstrom of Argentina's economic crisis during his four-year presidency, concerned but untouched, protected by a life of privilege to which he will return.

Things were different when he was elected in 2015, cutting a dashing figure as he tapped into frustration among Argentines fed up with 12 years of protectionism under leftist power couple Nestor and Cristina Kirchner.

The election of the business-friendly politician was a sea change for Argentina, as he eased restrictions on imports and ended the official exchange rate.

He managed to shake off his image as a fat cat to build a broad coalition of supporters around his mantra of change.

But with the country in recession since early 2018, the blue-eyed Macri's popularity has plummeted along with the country's economy and opinion polls give him little change of even making it beyond Sunday's first round of the election.

Macri, 60, acknowledges that his austerity measures created hardship for Argentines, but he says the worst is over and pleaded with voters to give him the opportunity "to finish the job, now that we have laid a solid foundation."

"Macri is marked by his history. Being rich inevitably paints him into a corner. It doesn't mean that he rules for the rich, but in a hungry Argentina that's a disadvantage because there are things he can only see if he is told about them," said Pablo Knopoff, a friend and political pollster.

"Macri didn't go to a public school nor did he ever use the public health service, nor ever have to use public transport. He's a strange politician in that regard, a guy who at 17 wasn't going around putting up posters on the streets," said Knopoff.

- Fortune, and fame -

The twice-divorced father of four rose to fame as the president of Argentina's most popular football club, Boca Juniors.

"I wanted to be Boca's number nine" striker, he once said.

Instead, he led in the boardroom during the team's most successful period, seeing it win 17 titles.

That powerful position catapulted him into politics. He founded his Republican Proposal alliance, known as PRO, in 2005.

Elected mayor of Buenos Aires in 2007, Macri led a movement called "Let's Change" vowing to roll back policies that Kirchner says help the working class but business leaders say wrecked economic growth.

- Life of privilege, drama -

Macri was born in Tandil, a city in an eastern agricultural region, and was educated at the elite Cardinal Newman College in Buenos Aires.

The son of a rich businessman, he previously managed the family firm.

He is married to model and fashion entrepreneur Juliana Awada, with whom he has an eight-year-old daughter. He has three adult children from the first of his three marriages.

His life has been marked by dramas and scandals.

In 1991, he was kidnapped and freed two weeks later after his family paid a $6 million ransom.

He said of the episode that he needed psychoanalysis for many years afterwards.

He was cleared of smuggling charges in the 1990s and overcame accusations of links to groups of Boca football hooligans.

More recently he was swept up in the Panama Papers controversy over offshore assets, saying he would repatriate more than a $1 million from his account in the Bahamas.

The leak of millions of documents in 2016 from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca showed he was on the boards of two offshore companies linked to his wealthy business magnate father.

"In the past, (Macri) was just right-wing and proud of it," sociologist Federico Gonzalez told AFP.

"Now he is like Buddha. He went out of his palace and discovered misery and sickness."