In 2013, María Eugenia Vidal launched a long-shot bid for governor of Buenos Aires — and won. Treated as a placeholder candidate in a race her party expected to lose, she ended up beating her opponent by five percentage points in 2015. Two years later, she has emerged as an indispensable player in Argentine politics — a protege of and useful foil to President Mauricio Macri and a fierce opponent of ex-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who, despite numerous corruption scandals, still wields significant political influence as a kingmaker.
Before the president tapped her to run for office in 2013, Vidal labored in Buenos Aires’s back offices as a loyal if wonky technocrat who had served as minister of social development from 2008 to 2011 and as Macri’s deputy mayor since 2011. Her entry into national politics benefitted from low expectations — she was chosen because more senior figures in her Republican Proposal party believed Buenos Aires province, long a stronghold for Fernández’s Peronist allies, was unwinnable. But Vidal quickly proved a natural politician with a knack for relating to — and inspiring — average citizens in a country where nearly 30 percent of the population lives in poverty.
A middle-class mother of three, she has been less insulated from societal ills than patrician career politicos such as Macri, the son of a wealthy businessman who has been described as “aloof” by international publications. Vidal, in contrast, projects an easy air of authenticity voters are hungry for — many Argentines describe her as a “chica del barrio,” or girl next door. With her background in social policy fieldwork, she is comfortable knocking on doors in poor neighborhoods and sharing personal stories, but she can also can be tough when necessary: In 2007, when two armed women tried to kidnap her infant son, Vidal saved him by screaming and throwing herself on top of the stroller.
As governor, she has used that toughness to focus on disrupting organized crime that plagues ordinary Argentines and hampers job creation. “If people see thieves in their neighborhood, or in their government, they’re not going to invest in the future,” she said. In her first year in office, she purged 132 senior officials from the provincial prison system and introduced a bill to change vetting procedures for hiring new correctional officers, in an effort to root out police corruption on the streets and in the penitentiary system. Vidal subsequently received death threats in 2016 that forced her to move to a military base for protection, where she still resides.
Despite her champions on the streets of Buenos Aires’s struggling suburbs, some dismiss Vidal as the president’s lightweight sidekick, a media creation boosted by a constant stream of articles tracking her town halls and neighborhood visits. But Vidal’s down-to-earth charm masks sharp political savvy. In particular, she has used her populist appeal to shore up support for Macri’s ambitious economic agenda, which mixes fiscal belt-tightening with infrastructure investment as the country tries to claw its way back from decades of stagnation and recession and avoid the pitfalls of another populist powerhouse — Fernández.
In 2017, Vidal was credited with acting as a bulwark against Fernández’s political comeback in midterm elections in October, ending with a win for Macri’s party and thus paving the way for the president’s controversial economic revolution. Fernández, remembered by many low-income Argentines for her administration’s generous social welfare programs, ran for Senate on a platform slamming Macri’s tough reforms as a broken austerity program. Her victory would have been seen as a direct rebuke to his economic agenda. But while Fernández held an early lead, her stiff opponent, Esteban Bullrich, was helped along by Vidal’s persistent support on the campaign trail. Though his name was on the ballot, Vidal was the one knocking on doors.
“Vidal is like Captain America. She was created as a super-soldier for Macri to win his war against Cristina,” Julio Burdman, the head of Argentine polling firm Observatorio Electoral, said in September.
Bullrich handily defeated Fernández, and Macri’s coalition gained in both houses of Congress, making it likely that the party will pass sweeping tax and labor laws aimed at opening the country’s economy.
The victory isn’t a cure-all for Argentina’s profound economic and social woes, but Vidal was clear-eyed early in 2017 during an interview. “Our mission is to change the political, economic, and social system of the past 30 years,” she said. “People know that tomorrow will be tough, but they’re willing to sacrifice if it will result in something better for their kids”
Kavitha Surana is a journalist based in Washington and New York.
Vidal is the first female governor of Buenos Aires province.