Monday, February 26, 2024

OP-ED | 25-11-2023 13:34

Destination unknown

Milei is a man of multiple contradictions too numerous for this space but he is about to face the biggest contradiction of them all – the outsider is days away from going inside.

Congratulations, contradictions, contrast and condolences – all four words with the same prefix are in order for Argentina’s new president-elect Javier MiIei and the people who elected him although any honest jury should stay out for now on whether the prefix itself of “con” applies.

The congratulations are the obvious place to start as obligatory (not least in the 40th year of restored democracy) even if begrudged by some. The most positive aspect of last Sunday’s run-off is the clarity of the result (five Milei votes for every four for Peronist Economy Minister Sergio Massa) – even those deploring Argentina’s change of course should feel relief that we are not still awaiting the final count with fraud charges poisoning the air. Not many other positives but at least Milei has been a good winner so far (infinitely easier than digesting defeat) while Massa stepped back from being a bad loser. Milei faces an extremely steep learning curve in relating to the rest of the world but his friendly chat with the “Communist” (Milei dixit) Pope offers hopes that he can make similar progress elsewhere – for example, understanding that China and Brazil are far more complex giants than his simplistic rejections.

The congratulations for the clarity of the result immediately lead to one of the contradictions – the contrast with being a minority government to end all minority governments in Congress, as widely observed. But even this clarity of mandate is debatable. The highest percentage in the last four decades (55.69 percent), yes, but it was a run-off with only one other option. Even among the 30 percent backing Milei in all three stages of voting, it might be suspected that protest voters vastly outnumbered libertarian purists and devotees of the Austrian school of economics while almost everybody else was voting against a failed government with runaway inflation. Some even bought the argument of PRO deputy Fernando Iglesias that while Milei was saying horrible things he had no possibility of implementing, Massa was doing horrible things in real life – i.e. a vote conditioned on not being a mandate.

Yet before dismissing the mandate of a negative vote outright, it also seems the way of the world – the Dutch elections in the same week show an eerily similar surge of the far right and a feeble performance of the centre-right. Argentine exceptionalism aside, something is going wrong worldwide – way beyond the scope of this editorial but critics also need to be more self-critical.

Milei is a man of multiple contradictions too numerous for this space but he is about to face the biggest contradiction of them all – the outsider is days away from going inside. And going inside the management of a broke economy on the brink of hyperinflation with negative reserves chewing away at bank deposits and a peso bond debt tripling the money supply no longer renewable – a cruel overhang which he lacks the parliamentary arithmetic to correct. This contradiction immediately leads to condolences (far more for the people for the hardships lying ahead than for the man feeling obliged to inflict them). Milei has disavowed the Peronist solution of throwing money (printed, not real) at problems, thus making the payment of Christmas aguinaldo bonuses improbable as the start of many sacrifices. His campaign slogan of making the political “caste” foot the bill trims little more than one percent off public spending while even leaving state companies adrift and suspending public works are barely a quarter of the cuts sought (15 percent of gross domestic product). Nor will Milei’s dogmatic insistence on maintaining Massa’s irresponsible tax cuts help balance the budget.

All premature speculation ahead of completion of his Cabinet together with definition of the role of ex-president Mauricio Macri and the first measures but there are already grounds for asking if last Sunday’s election was collective suicide. Or will the people resist the bitter medicine of an institutionally fragile president and go off a precipice other than Milei’s Masada? Those who would unfairly compare Milei to Adolf Hitler (despite diametrically opposite ideas on Judaism) might recall that his disasters ended in his own suicide.

This newspaper’s human rights traditions prompt a final word addressed not to Milei but to Argentina’s next Vice-President Victoria Villarruel. Those rightly criticising the Kirchnerite co-optation of human rights all too often throw out the baby with the bathwater – rubbishing the “human rights racket” (Macri dixit) instead of the theft of a cause which should belong to everybody. This country’s past deserves to be remembered and it deserves a second-in-command that fully recognises the horrors perpetrated by the state during that dark era.

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