BUENOS AIRES • Argentina has voted for deep change, electing the centre-right opposition leader Mauricio Macri to be President in a decisive end to 12 years of leftist populism, setting the stage for economic liberalisation, a warming of ties with the United States and political reverberations across Latin America.
Weary of outgoing President Cristina Fernandez's confrontational style and protectionist policies that hobbled growth in Latin America's third-biggest economy, the victory marked a stunning turnaround for the two-term mayor of the capital Buenos Aires, who had looked a distant prospect just a month ago. Mr Macri will be sworn in on Dec 10.
The ruling party's candidate Daniel Scioli conceded defeat and called Mr Macri to congratulate him on Sunday. With over 98 per cent of the ballots counted, Mr Macri had 51.5 per cent, while Mr Scioli followed with 48.5 per cent, according to the National Electoral Council.
"This is the beginning of a new era that has to carry us towards the opportunities we need to grow and progress," Mr Macri told supporters at his headquarters.
The son of an Italian-Argentine construction magnate, the 56-year-old inherits a fragile economy. Growth is underpinned by unsustainable public spending, inflation is estimated at well above 20 per cent and the central bank is running perilously low on currency reserves. Argentina is also in default on its sovereign debt.
"Foreign investors got their wish," said Washington-based emerging markets analyst Gary Kleiman. "Macri's win signals a decisive break with... creditor confrontation and economic mismanagement."
Mr Macri became a household name as president of Boca Juniors, one of Argentina's biggest soccer clubs, before entering Congress and later heading City Hall. He won the presidential election despite cutting the figure of an uncomfortable politician and having to battle a perception among the lower classes that he is a capitalist with little interest in helping the poor.
With 43 million people, gross domestic product of US$540 billion (S$764 billion) and a territory nearly the size of India, Argentina has for long fallen short of its potential.
Mr Macri's victory may send shock waves through South America's other left-leaning governments, which are also grappling with the end of a decade-long commodities boom and accusations of financial mismanagement.
Argentina has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other leftists in the region, including those in Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador. Those countries, as well as Brazil, rode a wave of commodity price highs - in oil, corn, soya beans - leading to a string of leftist wins. They are now suffering from the collapse of those prices and Mr Macri's victory could augur a rightward regional swing.
Mr Macri says he will negotiate hard in search of a deal needed to regain access to global credit markets. He also promises to move swiftly to dismantle the web of capital controls and trade restrictions.
His first trip abroad will be to meet Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to rebuild Brazil's confidence in a troubled trade relationship, he adds.