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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 28-10-2023 04:18

Crouching tiger, hidden lion

Fear of the unknown is such a conservative emotion that instead people ended up clinging to the status quo, inflation and scandals included.

The two gentlemen in the headline drawn from an Ang Lee film, Tigre’s Sergio Massa and the libertarian lion Javier Milei, will be the contestants in next month’s run-off, it was decided last Sunday – always assuming that the winner’s government stays the distance, Argentina will thus have been governed by a five-letter surname beginning with “M” or the last name of Kirchner for 30 of the 38 years between 1989 and 2027 (or even 34, depending on how the last four years are defined). And that is all today’s column intends to say about Massa and Milei because they will not only be the exclusive focus of analysis elsewhere, both within and beyond this newspaper, but they will be virtually monopolising this space in the next few weeks. So today is dedicated to the other participants in last Sunday’s general elections before they fade away.

Pride of place here surely goes to Patricia Bullrich as simultaneously by far the biggest vote haul among the also-rans (even outpolling re-elected Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof by a couple of million votes) and clearly the election’s big loser. The way Juntos por el Cambio snatched defeat from the jaws of victory would scream for analysis from any pundit but perhaps especially from this columnist who at least since last April has consistently been forecasting that Bullrich would be this country’s next president with Unión por la Patricia ousting Unión por la Patria.

Many analysts would hang their heads in shame at getting it so terribly wrong, trying to conveniently forget the blunder in the hope of it going unnoticed, but this columnist continues to insist that his forecast was the purest logic. Without ever really filling the opposition’s leadership vacuum, Bullrich was “condemned to success” in Eduardo Duhalde’s phrase as the winner by default because Massa has spent the last year doubling the country’s huge economic problems while Milei is simply too outlandish (so outlandish in fact that all his PASO primary triumphs came inland). Looking a bit deeper than this superficially general picture, this election was a lost cause, according to the government’s own premises, because one central axiom of their strategy throughout this year was to avoid a major devaluation at all costs – they could not and two months of double-digit inflation was the result. Not to mention the technicolour Martín Insaurralde corruption scandal (of all the surprises in last Sunday’s results, none shocked this columnist more than the Peronist vote in Lomas de Zamora surging by over 10 percent from the PASO primaries with the Bandido yacht in the middle). So the fallible opinion polls notwithstanding, a Bullrich win seemed so obviously the only possible conclusion to the point of being a no-brainer.

But not even the notorious fallibility of the opinion polls (so often a guarantee of the opposite) came to Bullrich’s rescue this time – the 20 or so surveys in the last week before the elections were flawed in many ways but almost all gave her the 23-24 percent she finally obtained. If last Saturday’s edition of this newspaper ran under the banner headline “New era awaits Argentina,” this columnist would be tempted to amend it slightly to “New error awaits Argentina” in the light of the results but in hindsight there were both cyclical and structural factors to explain an aberration which might seem to make nonsense of 40 years of democracy. Much has been made of the primitive but effective ‘plan platita’ with Massa unscrupulously abusing the post of economy minister to be the last of the big time spenders in an orgy of ultra-populism but it would not have been so successful without its deeper roots – the mathematics of three times as many Argentines depending on state salaries, pensions or handouts as the 6.2 million private-sector employees (of whom the vast majority are unionised). The disaster of over 40 percent below the poverty line perversely helps the government because it makes voters less independent and more vulnerable.

If “it’s the economy, stupid” seemed to doom Massa, this column banked on the anger underlying August’s PASO primaries being replaced as the dominant emotion by fear, given the devaluation apparently leading to the hyperinflation seen by Milei as a back door to dollarisation – since fear is basically a conservative emotion, this would cause people to turn away from the drastic changes flaunted by the libertarians to Bullrich’s solid team of economists. But fear of the unknown is such a conservative emotion that instead people ended up clinging to the status quo, inflation and scandals included.

Before any after-the-match inquest into the team which looked so good (or did it?), a few details to underscore the dimensions of the Juntos por el Cambio catastrophe because it went beyond being out of the run-off. Bullrich was the only candidate out of the quintet to drop in absolute numbers as well as percentage despite more votes (27.1 million as against under 25 million in the PASO primary) being distributed among five presidential candidates, not 27 hopefuls – Juntos por el Cambio shed some 630,000 votes. In the 23 provinces Argentina’s mainstream opposition are now ruling or about to govern in nine of them they could only manage even second place in Corrientes, Entre Ríos and Mendoza (after winning the PASO primary in the first two), falling below 20 percent in half the national territory. Defending 11 seats in the Senate, Juntos could only retain two of them (Buenos Aires Province and Misiones). And so on.

The pundits tend to pick out two main culprits for this tailspin – ex-president Mauricio Macri (first undermining City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and then ambiguous in his support between Bullrich and Milei, corrected too late) and the ferocious primary battle between Rodríguez Larreta and Bullrich burning the coalition and the candidate out. This columnist is not inclined to excuse Macri but he would defend the primary contest as a necessary debate between the depth and breadth of reform, essential for defining the electoral platform. The demise should rather be explained by adding another film title to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Lion (actually Dragon)” – The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938) – with the disappearance of Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner from the political scene robbing this highly diffuse coalition of its main common denominator and raison d'être.

Space is beginning to run out for the other players. A few words on the two other presidential candidates and the two big winners at local level – Kicillof and City Mayor-elect Jorge Macri. Instead of being squeezed out like most no-hopers, outgoing Córdoba Governor Juan Schiaretti almost doubled his PASO vote of 3.71 percent to 6.92 percent or 1.75 million votes – tempting to see this improvement as Rodríguez Larreta voters deserting the sinking ship since his growth was almost identical to Bullrich’s shrinkage but his strong debate performance seems to have been a factor. Leftist Myriam Bregman also performed strongly in the debates but this was cancelled out by pro-Palestinian stances amid Hamas massacres and a general failure to break out of her extremist ghetto, leaving her stuck on 2.7 percent.

Kicillof was re-elected with almost 45 percent of the vote and nearly 20 percent ahead of Lanús Mayor Néstor Grindetti who lost his town hall (and all but four of the 24 in Greater Buenos Aires with Mar del Plata the main consolation prize elsewhere as Juntos por el Cambio imploded from 88 to 43 of the province’s 135 districts). Macri is already mayor thanks to his Unión por la Patria rival Leandro Santoro with almost a third of the vote shrewdly deciding to keep the formidable City PRO party machine at home on national run-off day – nevertheless, Macri dropped two of the 15 City communes and Bullrich four from a clean sweep on PASO primary day. No round-up would be complete without Macri’s Interior minister Rogelio Frigerio snatching Entre Ríos Province from the Peronist grasp in an atypical result. Many other details could be added but no more space and time to start looking ahead to the run-off.

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.

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