Tomorrow’s presidential debate still lies ahead but if Wednesday night’s vice-presidential debate is any guide, citizens will be no wiser as to how to choose next weekend between Economy Minister Sergio Massa and libertarian deputy Javier Milei (two males whose forenames and surnames both have the same number of letters with the family name beginning with the same letter). Winston Churchill’s famous definition of democracy as “the worst possible system except for all the others” would seem to have descended from the general to the particular – even among those for whom one of the run-off duo was their first choice (little over half of PASO primary voters or little over a third of the electorate), all too many would describe their man as “the worst possible candidate except for the other guy.” That cliché of the lesser evil almost understates the situation.
Presidential debates have very occasionally proved to be electoral game-changers but a likelier outcome for tomorrow’s clash would be to multiply the misgivings. That was certainly the case on Wednesday night when Milei’s running-mate Victoria Villarruel was her own worst enemy with a style best described by adjectives sharing her initials (vicious, virulent and vehement) while Cabinet Chief Agustín Rossi boasted of Massa’s electioneering tax cuts boosting the fiscal deficit and hence runaway inflation as “transcendent decisions.” The general drift of their debate was negative with no real policy proposals on either side and all too much shouting. But since neither of these candidates is likely to have anything like the clout of the current vice-president, let us return to the presidential race now in its last lap.
The difficult choice facing voters can also be and is being presented in the most simplistic terms, but it remains extremely complicated after any full evaluation. And yet, although complex, it is a choice which must be made – a blank vote preserving personal dignity and sending out a valid protest message would still in the final analysis be a re-enactment of Pontius Pilate unworthy of the 40th anniversary of democracy.
Unlike the fragmented voting in both the PASO primary and the general elections, a run-off is polarised by definition and nor are these two candidates Tweedledum and Tweedledee making this decision a coin toss. If their versions of this clash as democracy versus fascism or ending two decades of frustration are taken at face value, there can be no hesitation as to how to vote. But there is a need to look beyond the candidates to their teams, their thousands of activists and millions of voters – regardless of how right and wrong are defined, there are many bad people in the good cause and many good in the bad.
If the choice were between what the two men represent (where Milei undoubtedly stacks up the odds against himself, despite the crass failure of Massa’s economic stewardship), voting would be much simpler but the problem is that both men are pigs in a poke. Would Massa be Alberto Fernández revisited (while his hyperactive image would suggest sterner stuff, he would be in hock to the Kirchnerite domination of Congress caucuses) or would he expel Kirchnerism from Peronism – is the issue really Kirchnerism or Milei? And if he were his own man, would that mean following the pro-market instincts of his youth or carrying short-term populism to extremes beyond ultra-Kirchnerism, as he has been doing in the past year?
In many ways Massa is thus also the leap in the dark generally attributed to Milei and the massive credibility gap accumulated in the long career of a still young minister would seem an unfavourable contrast with the strident clarity of the libertarian, who seems much closer to what you see is what you get. And yet even ahead of any presidency, Milei is already a walking contradiction – an anarcho-capitalist (when capitalism is lost outside a rules-based society) and a libertarian with an abrasively authoritarian discourse and running-mate (who very clearly denies the state terrorism that butchered and stole tens of thousands of lives). Then, we must consider his potential impact on Argentina’s democracy and discourse – this past week has seen him read from the populist playbook deployed by Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro and allege election fraud without evidence.
Only one thing is certain, Milei would definitely be a change, which might be for the better but could very easily be for the worse. Inheriting a disastrous economy and proposing magic solutions that seem impossible to introduce, he has major political structural weaknesses (zero provinces, eight senators) which might require him being the most consummate member of the “caste” ever to surmount.
Several politicians have already concluded that they do not own any votes with no right to tell anybody which way to choose and this editorial ends on the same note – reader, it is up to you. Choose wisely.