The crack and the chainsaw

Libertarian economist and social conservative Javier Milei burst in wielding his chainsaw in the run-up to Argentina’s presidential elections. The traditional dual coalition, Peronism and non-Peronism, is reacting to this shock.

On 13 August the compulsory open primary elections (PASO) were held. These are internal elections of the different parties to define candidates. Javier Milei, with his party Liberty Advances (LLA), surprised with a majority of 30% of votes.

Then, on 22 October, the general elections were held. None of the candidates achieved the majority needed to win the presidency outright, so there will be a run-off election on 19 November between the two candidates with the most votes. By maintaining his percentage, Milei managed to establish himself as a finalist in the presidential race. Non-Peronism, one of the permanent players in the Argentine party system, was left out of the ballot. It is Together for Change (JxC), which brings together President Mauricio Macri and the now-displaced candidate Patricia Bullrich. The other finalist for president is the ruling Peronist coalition Union for the Fatherland (UxP), which won 37 percent of the vote, up 10 percent from the PASO. Candidate Sergio Massa serves as the economy minister of the lame-duck president Alberto Fernández, who has faded since the very beginning of his presidency.

The (re)configuration of alliances

It is difficult to define Argentine parties in the right-left ideological orientation in a country where the electorate is centrist. The vernacular rift between Peronism and anti-Peronism implies a voting behavior rooted in socio-economic belonging and party tradition that leads to a forceful adherence to a political family. It remains to be seen how the dynamics in the party system will continue. Javier Milei burst in not only as a third force but also with a libertarian ideology. But the rift usually ends up processing the candidates and re-ordering most of the electoral space binary.

Some politicians are very adept at taking the temperature of civil society. Peronists stand out in this respect. Sergio Massa (UxP) is by many (people and memes) reviled as an accommodating politician who with phrases and political skill won (again) his passage to the presidential ticket. In 2015, he also tried a third way to the presidency, which he lost in third place. What is certain is that Peronism found in him a possibility to prevent the collapse of the final stretch of Alberto Fernández’s lackluster presidency, and to save the last Kirchnerist stronghold, which needs to be close to the government to delay ad aeternum corruption cases against it. Peronism has already secured a stronghold, with the Kirchnerist Axel Kicillof renewing his mandate in the province of Buenos Aires, the country’s main electoral district.

Together for Change (JxC), the coalition that was left out of the ballot is perceived as center-right. The selection of candidates was fought internally until the last minute, confident that the conditions were in place for a sure victory. Candidate Patricia Bullrich, former security minister during Mauricio Macri’s presidency, failed to convince much more than 23 percent and, with a few days to go before the end of the first round, the coalition effectively fell apart. Faced with the possibility of being entrenched in the opposition, Macri and Bullrich decided to support Javier Milei. Some minor candidates will support Sergio Massa. A large part of the electorate, respecting their political affiliation, will never accept a Peronist candidate. The Radical Civic Union (UCR) and the Civic Coalition (part of Together for Change) decided to remain neutral, thus formally establishing themselves (for now) as leaders of the opposition. A federal triumph for JxC stands out, as it will go from governing in 4 provinces to governing in 10 out of 23, and will have a majority of governors. A big gain for the future opposition. It also retained the City of Buenos Aires, now with Jorge Macri, cousin of the former president. It is too early to brandish this federal electoral banner, but it is a strong bargaining chip for the future government or to establish itself as a forceful opposition.

Javier Milei is the other politician (actually an economist) who skillfully read the electorate. He detected anger and weariness that fitted perfectly with his casual and fresh look. His coalition, Liberty Advances, is recent (from 2021) and has libertarian proposals. It brandishes a chainsaw as a symbol of “anti-political caste” and anti-state interventionism. The dollarization of the economy with one of the highest inflation rates in the world, the transformation of public education into a system of educational vouchers like those proposed by Milton Friedman in the 1960s, and the health system fees generated detractors and criticisms but set the political agenda on sensitive issues and the weariness of a broken and corrupt system. Coincidentally, the final stretch of the campaign is marked by high inflation, poverty, lack of medical supplies, and fuel shortages.

Many of his libertarian proposals are difficult to implement, impractical or have failed. It is a candidacy with no territorial base of its own, and its anti-caste platform is at odds with the need to seek the alliances necessary for long-term governance and change. There are even fears of anti-democratic practices. Many see a vote for Milei as a leap into the void. It could be for this reason that Milei is redefining his discourse from uniting in the face of disenchantment to generating hope for something new. 

The ballot

The ballot will see Argentinians torn between two options: a proven Peronist candidate in politics and a disruptive and libertarian one.

Massa may have made a mistake in placing Milei as his adversary (and not Bullrich) and thus have raised his value. To face him, he has on the one hand the captive Kirchnerist vote and a large part of the traditional Peronist vote. In addition, he has the keys to the kingdom; the state/Peronist apparatus in his favor. He makes use of clientelist affinities and phobias. Mass mobilization at the polling stations, cash and budget allocations as bargaining chips, and the popularly called “plan platita” financed by inflation created momentum in his campaign. Moreover, it exploits the doubts about Milei’s government plan: fear of immediately running out of subsidies and state jobs, on which more than 50% of the population depends, and fear of losing free education and health care.

The electorate left vacant by Patricia Bullrich bears the burden of the technical tie-breaker. The implosion of JxC means that one sector could be allied with the government and another with the opposition. And if they all lose, the UCR, the Civic Coalition, and Public Trust have already gone ahead to plant the definitive opposition flag.

Milei will have to decide to whom please. So far, he has done an impressive job of winning votes across the board, but above all from Peronism, and from young people, informal workers, and people disenchanted with traditional politics. It remains to be seen whether these voters are more likely to adhere to Peronism or to be fed up with it. Milei also has to hunt for votes among those who have been left without a candidate. He will have to convince JxC voters that, beyond his anti-caste discourse, in practice he will not end up being just another Peronist.

Many, such as Martín Lousteau (UCR), believe that Milei is a “demagogue who affects democratic coexistence”. The blank vote has several interpretations. It is a protest vote for those who distrust both candidates. It is a “let the rest do as they please” card for those who do not feel represented. It is also for many JxC voters a demonstration of belonging to a political space, or of not betraying principles and asserting themselves as opposition.

Legitimacy 

Getting elected is an arduous but necessary task to have the unfortunate luck of governing. Of the 40 years of uninterrupted democracy in Argentina, Peronism has governed for 28 years, and Kirchnerism for 20. The united anti-Peronism reached the presidency only 3 times. President Mauricio Macri of the now JxC was not re-elected. Although with some hiccups, transitions between democratic governments took place; two radical governments ended prematurely amid an economic crisis, but democracy was not interrupted. People have voted in every election since the end of the dictatorship. In Argentina, the “never again” was engraved in fire as a triumph for those of us who lived through the military dictatorship.

For every vote to count, the elections must be fair.  International bodies, for example in Latin America, can serve to ward off the specter of fraud. Another factor that adds legitimacy to a government is the freedom to choose. Indicators such as 40% of poverty and a higher percentage of dependence on the state to live, work, or produce create a cycle of poverty reproduction and clientelism. The freedom to decide is constrained by the need for subsistence, which trumps the need for necessary change.

The analysis of these elections continues to revolve around discontent. We are in a period of reactivation of discussion and citizen participation, with three elections in three months. There are realignments of political forces. Social inclusion in the productive process with higher links in the value scale, support for the knowledge industry, which is currently competitive at the international level, a more sophisticated insertion in the world, the development of regional industries, are policies that are not so alien to anyone that they need to reach a consensus.

The next president of Argentina is between Milei’s “they should all go away” 2.0, or “better Massa already known than Milei to be known”. We will see if, with a responsible opposition, the next government will move toward intergenerational public policies that can solve the needs of the population.

*Translated by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva from the original in Spanish.

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