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OP-ED | 28-10-2023 04:58

Decline and fall

An internal crisis was always in the offing for Juntos por el Cambio but nobody was expecting the fragile unity to explode so openly within 48 hours.

The developments over the past week have been all too predictable but have nevertheless managed to surprise almost everybody by taking an unexpected form. Almost every opinion poll had been pointing to a run-off between libertarian Javier Milei and Economy Minister Sergio Massa as the likeliest outcome of last Sunday’s voting but not in the reverse order and not with a margin of several percent. After all the friction between the two wings of the Juntos por el Cambio opposition coalition through to last August’s PASO primary, an internal crisis was always in the offing with the dimensions of last Sunday’s defeat adding a need for catharsis but nobody was expecting the fragile unity to explode so openly within 48 hours.

Taking those two surprises in chronological order, Massa’s triumph seems inexplicable in both political and economic terms, given the mass discontent fuelled by the intensity of recent corruption scandals and an inflationary spiral already doubling during his year in office and gathering momentum towards hyperinflation with the double-digit monthly inflation sparked by his pointless post-PASO devaluation. Perhaps we need to turn to sociology. 

In more global terms modern technology has placed us in a liquid society where impact counts for so much more than hard data – this perhaps explains why the worst Peronist electoral performance in these 40 years of democracy (falling below even Italo Argentino Luder in 1983 or Daniel Scioli in 2015) should be hailed so enthusiastically as such an epic feat. 

But turning the sociological prism towards Argentina, perhaps we need to face the fact that Argentina is rapidly ceasing to be the middle-class society so dear to its self-image as the explanation of this election. Both people under the poverty line and those living off the state via public-sector salaries, pensions, welfare handouts, etc. are a remarkably similar percentage of around 40 percent of the population – these two groups by no means overlap (thus the top brass in Banco Nación earning a monthly nine million pesos or more would also figure among those dependent on the state) but between them they conspire against the traditional middle-class ethos. 

The lower classes have also undergone a transformation in the last three decades. Private-sector employment has been stuck at six million for over a decade now, making the traditional working-class masses enrolled in trade unions increasingly a phenomenon of the past century – enough to help keep Peronism alive but losing their majority to informal jobbers and the self-employed. These are far more politically amorphous, trending towards both of next month’s run-off contestants – millions depend entirely on a populist model with Peronism coming naturally to the lumpenproletariat (hence the leftist Myriam Bregman very much the bottom of Sunday’s heap) but many others among the self-employed feel that if they have to find their own way without the state, they would rather dispense with that burden altogether.

This middle-class struggle for survival goes far towards explaining why Juntos por el Cambio has been left electorally adrift as the core of both the Radicals as Argentina’s historic middle-class party nationwide and PRO as its more modern and metropolitan variant. Nevertheless, if victory has a thousand fathers while defeat is an orphan, as John F. Kennedy said, we should look to that defeat as the catalyst of the midweek coalition crisis rather than any deeper reasons.

That crisis was triggered by the gratuitously explicit and premature alliance with Milei announced by Juntos presidential candidate Patricia Bullrich following a meeting between the two erstwhile rivals at the home of former president Mauricio Macri, the real power broker behind events. Since their logic was the impossibility of remaining neutral in the current situation, it is difficult for this newspaper to be neutral in its reactions to this rash move. Given a choice between a corrupt populism bankrupting the country and a libertarian leap in the dark with a dollarisation without dollars, to paraphrase Bullrich’s own discourse in the election campaign, everything points to backing neither option, as recommended by most coalition leading lights – the Radicals in particular would have acute existential problems backing a dubiously democratic candidate who rubbishes human rights and their icon Hipólito Yrigoyen as the root of Argentina’s decline.

Bullrich’s U-turn also repeats her campaign error of making the end of Kirchnerism her focus ahead of Argentina’s other problems without contemplating that it is an endangered species for whom Massa’s rise could be the worst possible news. The hawks more than the doves are turning Juntos por el Cambio into a dead duck.

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