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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 28-10-2023 04:50

A final showdown in a new ecosystem

Despite complaints from the Milei crew that fraud swiped some five percentage points from their electoral harvest, the reality is that they benefited from the “Peronist machine” in the primaries. For the general election, they were on their own.

If the surprising results of the August 13 PASO primaries detonated the pillars of Argentina’s political equilibrium over the past 20 years of democratic rule, the shock outcome of the general election directly put the political class in disarray. After ultra-libertarian lawmaker Javier Milei took the lead in the primaries, it felt as if he had consolidated his position, with many already preparing themselves for his inevitable presidency. Apparently, the economist was as surprised as Sergio Massa, the economy minister leading the pan-Peronist Unión por la Patria coalition, who ended up taking the election with a six-point lead over Milei and relegated Patricia Bullrich and Juntos por el Cambio to a humiliating third place with less than 24 percent of the vote. Much like in the primaries, few, if any, had predicted those results and the whole socio-political-economic ecosystem had set its expectations on a victory for La Libertad Avanza, the libertarian coalition, which would face off with a weak opponent in the run-off. The blue peso-dollar exchange rate, Argentina’s fear gauge, had surged dangerously as a substantial devaluation was expected the day after the election, while economic actors were trying to figure out what a dollarisation would look like. With the same haste with which it proclaimed Milei the next president, “the market,” and the “círculo rojo” (or group of decision-makers made up of businessmen, journalists, intellectuals and politicians) now assumes it’s Massa time.

Massa’s electoral performance was absolutely spectacular, of that there should be no doubt. He went from third to first place, snatching a spot in the run-off, gaining 3.2 million votes between the PASO primaries to the general election. He retained Juan Grabois’ hard-line vote while growing his share in almost every province. It is a bit of a conundrum when put in context: Massa is Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s economy minister just as inflation spirals out of control, the peso-dollar exchange rate remains uncontrollable and poverty has grown above 40 percent. He was literally in charge of negotiations with the unpopular International Monetary Fund over Argentina’s record US$44.5-billion debt programme. Several experts point to the use of the “aparato,” which translates directly to “the machine,” and refers to the territorial capacity to guarantee and even “buy” the vote, both from the traditional party structure of the Partido Jusiticialista, and via the state. From the day he took over the Economy Ministry, Massa has unleashed a barrage of measures aimed at shoring up the beleaguered pockets of nearly every sector of the population, generally at the expense of the private sector and many times financed through money-printing, as journalist José del Río explained in great detail in a recent piece.

Furthermore, the territorial machine was put in motion, guaranteeing that Massa’s ballots were there and making it as difficult as possible for Milei’s to be found. Throughout the all-important “Conurbano” or ring of municipalities that encircle Buenos Aires City — a traditional Peronist bastion that is also one of the poorest geographies in the nation — patronage went into overdrive, with the so-called “barons of Buenos Aires” (historical mayors) finally aligned with Massa distributing mountain bikes, refrigerators and washing machines. Massa’s votes in the region, the most populous province and known as “the mother of all battles,” grew a whopping 47.9 percent from the primaries to the general election, in tandem with incumbent Governor Axel Kicillof, who easily won re-election. Sergio knew he was closing in on Milei, but even he didn’t expect a six-point lead.

Despite complaints from the Milei crew that fraud swiped some five percentage points from their electoral harvest, the reality is that they benefited from the “Peronist machine” in the primaries. For the general election, they were on their own. There is ample evidence that Milei’s ballots were “protected” and “guaranteed” by the “aparato,” allowing the dishevelled libertarian’s coalition, which lacked any sort of national organisation or structure, to reach the whole country. Indeed, the wild-haired economist gained nearly 800,000 votes in the general election, essentially keeping his share unchanged around 30 percent, given the higher turnout. There was discontent at the LLA headquarters at the Hotel Libertador in Buenos Aire, as the blame was initially pinned on controversial comments from people like Alberto Benegas Lynch Jnr. who called on cutting ties with the Vatican because “Pope Francis is a Communist,” and Lilia Lemoine, who suggested she would propose a bill that would allow fathers to renounce unwanted children. While those comments appear to dissuade moderates, convincing them that voting for Milei is like “jumping off the precipice” as both of his opponents suggested, they appear insufficient to explain how Milei’s sure win was soured by Massa, despite his being their desired rival for a run-off.

After the initial victory lap, Milei began to “soften” his rhetoric. He was generally respectful during the presidential debates, and sought to convey an air of order to his political platform by announcing several members of his inner circle of advisors and potential cabinet line-up, seeking to ease fears about a crisis of governability. But while he retained his hardcore followers, Milei was unable to go fishing in Juntos por el Cambio’s estuary. His strength as a politician is related to his outsider status and his outlandish, aggressive and dominating style. Most of this appeared lacking or excessively contained. Political strategist Mario Russo, who was Milei’s initial campaign chief, suggested they lacked strategy in a radio interview with Modo Fontevecchia. Rather than concentrating the spotlight on Milei and running-mate Victoria Villarruel, LLA’s communications strategy was a free-for-all, allowing space for tactical mistakes, he argued. He believes Milei has a great chance to win the run-off, but must focus in on his message and strategy rather than play loose. He knows his opponents strategise and knows what to do to win, he suggested.

One of the defining features of this campaign have been the negative attributes of the candidates. Indeed, it appears to be the first thing potential allies are looking at. In Massa’s case, not only is he the current economy minister but also he represents Kirchnerism, and even has Fernández de Kirchner’s crew in his space, with son Máximo having led the ticket for the Chamber of Deputies in Buenos Aires Province. The Tigre leader is seen by his enemies as a prime suspect of Peronist corruption. Milei’s antagonists see a fascist right-winger who is mentally unfit to run the nation. After all he’s said about Juntos por el Cambio, he’s made a peace offering to Bullrich, and Mauricio Macri.

The showdown between Milei and Massa occurs as the main opposition coalition over the last few decades disintegrates in plain sight. After a devastating defeat, Juntos por el Cambio is truly being put to the test. Macri, who is seen by many as the brains behind the failed strategy, has managed to bury the careers of two of his most prominent disciples, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and Bullrich. He’s leading a push to seal an alliance with Milei given the ideological proximity between the hawks of the PRO party and the libertarian. This generated the immediate reaction of the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR), which is historically opposed to Macri’s coalition leadership, prompting party chair Gerardo Morales and Martín Lousteau to claim PRO had left Juntos por el Cambio. How many of the 23.8 percent that voted for Bullrich can truly accept voting for Milei? Interestingly, this potential schism occurs at Juntos por el Cambio’s moment of greatest strength as the opposition, with territorial control in 10 provinces (including Buenos Aires City) and 93 deputies in Congress.

As Milei tries to seduce Juntos por el Cambio, Massa is calling for a national unity government and is willing to exchange political favours for support. With a long history in the game, Massa knows all the right people and what makes them tick. Regardless, whether Macri and Bullrich tell the people to vote for Milei or the UCR is roped into Massa’s future cabinet, the people own their vote. 

It will be a long few weeks in political terms until the run-off, and as we’ve repeated tirelessly in previous columns, anything can still happen.

Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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