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Argentina's Next Power Brokers?

Francisco de Narváez is not the sort of person you'd expect to build a political platform around the idea of normalcy. He’s a Colombian-born businessman with a big black tattoo on his neck who inherited the family supermarket chain back in the '90s, then built it into a business empire, with stakes in agriculture, clothing stores, and even Argentina's leading newspaper, Clarin. Not to mention, in the last four years, he's mysteriously managed to increase his wealth by about 900 percent, prompting authorities to launch an investigation into his business dealings earlier this month (the rumor mill is buzzing about a drug connection).

But voters in Latin America's third-largest economy seem ready to give his brand of normalcy a try. The dissident Peronist just eked out a win over former president Nestor Kirchner in midterm congressional elections, amounting to a humiliating and potentially crippling upset over Argentina's resident power couple—not to mention a huge legislative thorn in the side of Nestor's wife, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who lost her congressional majority in the process. It’s a particularly impressive feat, since the Kirchner-Narváez face-off took place in the sprawling, largely working-class suburbs of Buenos Aires province that have long been the Kirchners’ electoral home turf.

Narváez, on the other hand, is part of a center-right coalition that has been making inroads into power in the past few years, which favors privatization and supports the farming community in their fight against high export taxes. Mauricio Macri, another business leader and the owner of the Boca Juniors, Argentina's most popular soccer team, swept to victory in the race to become mayor of Buenos Aires in 2007, a position of outsized influence in a country where 10 percent of the population lives in the capital city. And his former deputy mayor, Gabriela Michetti, just landed a decisive win to become the city's congressional leader. Farmers who had been sufficiently incensed by the Kirchners' tax policies to try their hands at politics also picked up seats.

Could the pendulum swing back to neoliberalism in Argentina? Anti-Kirchner Peronists are certainly on the rise and are newly positioned to challenge the policies strong-armed into place under the Kirchners, but the grand coalition they're proclaiming is not fully up and running yet. For one, Kirchner's term isn't over until 2011, and there's ample evidence she's not above ruling by sheer force of populism—stirring up those infamous Argentine street protests. For another, there are still breaks in the ranks. Days before the election, Narváez surprised even his coalition partners by backing nationalizations in certain public-service sectors, normally a big no-no among the pro-business types. But, then again, "normal" may not have been the best way to characterize Narváez after all.

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