By FREDERICK BERNAS and DIANE GHOGOMU
BUENOS AIRES — Election season in Argentina is heralded by images of smiling candidates, gazing down from billboards and up from fliers distributed by zealous volunteers. Many names strike a familiar chord with voters, but this year an unfamiliar face suddenly materialized, drawing millions of eyes: Omar Obaca.
“Who knows, he might turn out to be another Obama,” said Laura Buccafusca, 67, a well-coiffured retiree who was walking her dog in the Congreso area, reflecting on the American president’s relatively high popularity here.
But Omar Obaca has no chance of winning. Indeed, he is not even running. He is a fictitious African-Argentine candidate, dreamed up by an advertising company to satirize Argentine, and perhaps American, politics, and setting off a whirlwind in the process.
The comedy campaign has exploded into an Internet sensation, channeling a desire for change after more than a decade of one-family rule — and igniting a fierce debate here over the ways in which black people are portrayed in a society that has long prioritized its ties to Europe.
The billboards advertise an online video series that has drawn more than seven million views. Some of the episodes showcase farcical policies like “Everyone Dressed as Police” to reduce street crime; paying Argentina’s national debt to China with caramel candy; or rigging the weak Argentine peso to a fantastically strong exchange rate of four American dollars.
“Obaca is the politician that all politicians want to be, but they can’t — because they don’t have ideas and they’re not black,” said Sebastián Rodas, a director at NAH! Contenidos, the advertising company behind the project. “We’re making fun of the idea that someone can use their color to market themselves in a political campaign. He has proposals, but the first thing is: ‘I’m black, I look like Obama. Maybe that’s good. Vote for me!’”
Some Argentines of African origin have expressed excitement at seeing one of their own in the limelight.
“It gives me hope to see an Afro-descendent as protagonist — this is the first time an Afro actor has had a mass audience,” said Paulo da Silva, 27, an African-Argentine actor whose family left Brazil for Buenos Aires when he was 3. “For every 10 roles that exist for a white person, there is one for a black person.”
But some leading activists counter that Obaca revives old stereotypes. The newspaper Pagina 12 recently published a scathing op-ed that accused the campaign of “resorting to one of the oldest traditions of aristocratic families of yesteryear: the black buffoon.”
Its author, Federico Pita, president of the African Diaspora of Argentina, wrote that “naturalization of racism and white supremacy” had allowed a character who “ridicules, stereotypes, stigmatizes” to gain huge popularity.
Carlos Álvarez, president of a group called Agrupación Xangô, said that community members had filed a complaint with the National Institute Against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism. He called Obaca a “vulgar” stereotype of a “happy black guy to liven up the party,” exemplifying “structural racism.”
The advertisers at NAH, who are generally dismissive of criticism of the campaign, said they were fascinated by the campaign that swept Mr. Obama to victory in 2008, including its groundbreaking social media strategy.
“Political marketing is totally fake, but the first Obama campaign was very genuine,” Mr. Rodas said. “They didn’t fear doing things differently.”
The actor who plays Mr. Obaca, Marcos Moreno Martínez, grins and radiates an easy charisma, talking in local slang with emphatic hand gestures that evoke his theatrical background.
He got the call for what he described as “just another casting” in 2010 and was instantly selected for a pilot episode, filmed on the spot. NAH had intended to produce the Obaca series for elections in 2011, but no buyers emerged until the online channel FWTV came forward last year.
Months later, Mr. Martínez, 38, said he felt like a “star” every time he stepped onto the streets of Buenos Aires, as steady streams of fans request selfies by his side.
“It never ceases to surprise me,” the actor said. “Kids in other provinces see me, even when I’m not dressed as Obaca, and say, ‘What a genius, I’ll vote for you!’”
He was previously known for playing an inmate in “Tumberos,” a successful TV drama about corruption and prison life during tough times after Argentina’s 2001 financial crisis.
That led to film and theater roles, but Mr. Martínez needed more income. Like some other struggling actors, he worked as a taxi driver for several years, before selling his car to invest in materials to build a small house that he now rents out. He lives in the provincial city of Luján, about 42 miles from Buenos Aires.
“Nobody ever gave me anything,” he said, recalling the years of crushing three-hour commutes from his home into the capital, where he attended theater classes as a university student. As well as acting, he plays percussion in a Latin dance band and runs music workshops at a school in his neighborhood.
“Obaca arrived at a moment with a lot of political violence,” Mr. Martínez said, describing a polarized atmosphere that breeds social tension.
“People needed to laugh at a fictional politician who promises an Argentina that will not happen,” he added. “That’s why they get on board with the Obaca dream.”
On Sunday, national elections will bring an official end to 12 years of “Kirchnerism,” the political movement named for the late president, Néstor Kirchner, who was married to — and succeeded by — the incumbent, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
After winning four-year terms in 2007 and 2011, she is constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term.
Although some in Argentina say the country is ready for a political shift, continuity is expected. The front-runner, Daniel Scioli, is a former vice president who has been governor of Buenos Aires Province since 2007 and was endorsed by Mrs. Kirchner.
“None of the candidates has been able to generate a perception of something new,” said Philip Kitzberger, a professor of political science at Torcuato Di Tella University.
But critics contend the Obaca campaign comes at the expense of Argentina’s small black population. Argentina’s 2010 census reported that about 150,000 (or just 0.4 percent) of its 40 million people considered themselves “Afro-descendent” — an ethnic category that was reinstated after more than 130 years of not appearing on the survey.
Erika Edwards, an assistant professor of Latin American history at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, said that such a tiny number was probably an underestimate. Argentina’s first census showed that blacks made up about a third of the population in the late 18th century, with most arriving as African slaves. But a huge European immigration, specifically called for by the first Argentine laws, shifted the country’s demographics.
“Miscegenation and racial mixing were actually encouraged under the guise of ‘blanqueamiento’ — the concerted whitening of the nation,” Dr. Edwards said.
In the mid-19th century, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, revered as the father of education in modern Argentina, announced the “extinction” of African-Argentines at a time when the black community still published its own newspapers in Buenos Aires.
Despite such assessments, African-Argentines like José Agustín Ferreyra, a prolific filmmaker, and Oscar Alemán, a versatile musician who played jazz with Louis Armstrong, gained recognition in their fields. But African-Argentines still say such accomplishments are neglected.
Mr. Martínez defended his character in the Obaca campaign, contending that there were “much worse things” than a black politician in a suit who is broadly admired. “I was asked to play delinquents, thieves or drug dealers so many times that one day I decided to never accept that again,” he said.