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Pocketbook Woes Drive an Unlikely Comeback in Argentine Presidential Race

BUENOS AIRES — Four years ago, Mauricio Macri persuaded working class Argentines like Hugo Taboada that it was time to end 17 years of economic mismanagement and brazen graft by the country’s leftist leaders, a shift that propelled him to an upset victory as president.

Yet on Mr. Macri’s watch, soaring inflation, capital flight and rising poverty have again dragged Argentina into an economic tailspin.

“He was supposed to be a smart guy — I really thought he would know how to manage the economy,” said Mr. Taboada, a 54-year-old construction worker. Instead, Mr. Taboada said, “He broke everything.”

Argentine voters are expected to deprive the center-right president of a second term in Sunday’s election for having failed to deliver on his promise to break the country’s boom-and-bust cycle with a leaner government that meddled less in the economy.

A loss would enable his archrival, former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to return to power, this time as vice president, in a dramatic comeback that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Mrs. Kirchner, the center-left politician who ran Argentina from 2007 to 2015, is being tried now on corruption charges in one of 11 graft cases against her.

But voters like Mr. Taboada, seeing the cost of basic goods soar and the purchasing power of their paychecks dwindle, appear willing to overlook the allegations against Mrs. Kirchner in an election fought mainly over pocketbook issues.

“Kirchnerism had good things and bad things, and many of us voted for Macri in 2015 to fix the bad things,” said Iván Butera, 20, a sociology student. “He repeated over and over again that he had the key to fix inflation and help economic growth, and that was clearly not the case.”

Mr. Macri’s troubles became starkly clear in the primary election in August, which showed that voters favored Mrs. Kirchner’s handpicked presidential candidate, Alberto Fernández, by a 16 percentage point margin. If that trend holds on Sunday, Mr. Fernández, 60, and Mrs. Kirchner, 66, would cruise to victory without a runoff.

The incumbent has been bedeviled by challenges that would have rattled any government. But Mr. Macri, 60, was particularly vulnerable after assembling a cabinet heavy on academics and private-sector experts, but without “good mid-management officials who understood how to run the state,” said Ernesto Calvo, an Argentine political science professor at the University of Maryland.

That led to mistakes, critics say, including an early decision to issue billions in debt in foreign currency. The move left the government with little flexibility when confronted by shocks like a devastating drought last year or a rise in the United States interest rate that made Argentina less attractive to investors.

With the Argentine central bank hemorrhaging, Mr. Macri last year turned to the International Monetary Fund for a $57 billion line of credit, a politically toxic move in a country where many blame the I.M.F. for a devastating 2001 economic crisis.

While that lifeline gave the president some initial breathing room, the economy has continued to flail.

“Macri in 2015 was seen as a structural change — the first sign that the region was moving away from leftist populism — and this was going to represent a change not only for Argentina but for the region as a whole,” said Jimena Blanco, head of the Americas research team at Verisk Maplecroft, a risk consultancy. “Now Argentina’s failure is seen as a cautionary tale.”

Mr. Macri, a former businessman who served two terms as mayor of Buenos Aires, had tried to transform the country into a regional powerhouse that would rely on market forces to attract investment and expand the middle class.

In an interview before his election in 2015, he used a soccer metaphor to convey his vision, a sharp contrast to the patchwork of subsidies, price controls and trade regulations favored by Mrs. Kirchner and her late husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner.

“You have to cut the grass, draw the lines and it is the people who have to play,” Mr. Macri said.

Mr. Macri dismantled the consumer subsidies that had curbed the cost of everything from electricity to public transportation, but had become impossible for the state to afford. Argentines who had ascended to the middle class during the Kirchner years stumbled back into poverty. Many who had been struggling all along became destitute.

“In the last two years, people who were not homeless started approaching us and asking us for food,” said Monica De Russis, the coordinator of Amigos en el Camino, which provides meals and clothes to homeless people in Buenos Aires.

Mr. Macri’s team says the primary results cannot be extrapolated to the general election and they are touting their candidate’s bold investments in infrastructure. But many former Macri supporters are underwhelmed.

“When there are people sleeping in the street and going hungry it seems like the priorities are all wrong,” said Melisa Matheos, a 36-year-old textile designer who voted for Mr. Macri in 2015 but will not support him Sunday. “It’s a bit like buying a fridge when you have no food.”

Mr. Macri’s allies have also emphasized Mrs. Kirchner’s legal troubles. But the former president has remained largely out of sight, spending much of the time visiting her daughter Florencia, also a target of corruption investigations, in Cuba, where she has been receiving medical treatment.

This has left the spotlight to Mr. Fernández, who until recently had been a behind-the-scenes political operative and law professor. Running under the slogan “Argentina Back on its Feet,” Mr. Fernández has promised to prioritize the welfare of ordinary Argentines, not the wealthy elites he says Mr. Macri has championed, though details of his economic plan have been few.

Mr. Macri retains considerable support, as seen at rallies across the country where supporters chant “Mauricio will turn it around!” But the turnout and locations of those gatherings show an incumbent failing to broaden his base.

“They were more about consolidating as opposition and making sure he does not lose any more votes,” said Mariel Fornoni, the director of Management and Fit, a political consultancy.

Jorge Argentina González, a 61-year-old retiree at a recent Macri rally, said corruption in the previous government was the main reason he still supported the incumbent.

“Everybody thinks with their pockets, not with their heads,” he said. “Unless we’re willing to sacrifice a little we’re never going to move forward as a country.”

Some, however, feel they’ve sacrificed too much.

“I don’t think it will be a magical solution to our problems,” said Lorenzo Giménez, a 21-year-old engineering student and former Macri supporter who intends to vote for Mr. Fernández. “But I do think he will prioritize bringing relief to those who need it the most.”

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