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OP-ED | 19-08-2023 08:21

Primary Avalanche Shatters Order

Argentina’s general election is still nine weekends away but it has been turned on its head.

A whole new ball game after last Sunday’s PASO primary in which a decisive shift has left the political and economic scenario in a state of total indecision only compounded by its aftermath in the past week. Whether the result of mindless post-electoral panic or of subordinating the entire economy to Central Bank reserves and their urgent need of an injection from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Monday’s devaluation has devalued all the logic of devaluation – announced with zero explanation and no accompanying measures to justify an exchange rate lurch which could only lead to surging prices with the government’s own electoral chances among the many casualties. But in such a volatile scenario it is impossible to anticipate the movements or the numbers between the time this editorial was written and is read so we will leave it at that.

The political arena entails a somewhat longer-term perspective with the general election still nine weekends away but it has also been turned on its head. Last week’s headlines all revolved around the shock victory of the libertarian extremist Javier Milei but those echoing the sports world philosophy of “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” might be reminded of an extremely fine line between triumph and disaster – no PASO primary could be more catastrophic than the last in 2019 when the previous president Mauricio Macri finished 16 points behind and yet his total of 31.8 percent was well ahead of Sunday’s rampant winner (whose haul of just over 30 percent is likely to fall below that psychologically important line once the full vote is in). If that fine line has wavered in the past and present, it might well continue to do so in the future.

The momentum could go either way but it swung heavily in Milei’s favour last Sunday. And if he is indeed a local reincarnation of Jair Bolsonaro or Donald Trump, as more than one pundit has argued, that support is unlikely to change if we consult those experiences – the Brazilian fell less than one percent short of re-election last year despite all the misadventures of his presidency while the stubborn loyalty of Republicans to Trump despite all his lies and litigation defies belief. Everybody loves a winner, it is said, and although an exaggeration, this factor could add several percent to his vote, potentially taking him closer to the 40 or 45 percent needed to win in October. If the dollar which he seeks to enshrine as the national currency is a barometer of his support and continues present trends, then he is home and dry.

Yet a primary is not an election and the whole new ball game could go the other way – it remains to be seen whether it was a cathartic protest vote or a voracity for change exceeding the Juntos por el Cambio label of the mainstream opposition. Some analysts see Milei’s PASO vote as a roof as much as a ceiling and it is difficult to find reasons why most of the 70 percent not voting for him now should do so in the future – even if over 30 percent of the electorate staying home last Sunday remains to be tapped. If all of the 16 provinces won by Milei were inland, despite an underwhelming performance in provincial elections, this might stem from the machines which have so far kept most of the incumbent provincial administrations in power jealously guarding libertarian ballots to divide the opposition – this will not be repeated in October. Outsider populism is in fashion worldwide but is not irreversible – it was halted in Brazil and France and could be stopped here.

While the jury remains out on Milei and the chances of the government candidate Sergio Massa depend entirely on others (striking lucky in a three-way split to enter the run-off despite the collapse of his administration), Juntos por el Cambio standard-bearer Patricia Bullrich faces the toughest dilemmas of all. Winning the primary against Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta on which she centred her entire focus, she lost sight of the big picture and lost the PASO itself with her “all or nothing” version of the liberal right trumped by an even more extreme Milei almost doubling her vote. How does she bridge that gap of three million votes while retaining the 2.5 million of her centrist primary rival – by outbidding the PASO winner or rallying a shrinking middle ground?

That and many other questions remained to be answered in the next two months. 

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