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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 21-10-2023 05:08

Javier Milei, the end of Argentina's two-coalition era and the emergence of something new

Society is on edge about what can and will happen starting Monday given serious economic fragilities, with some even speaking of a potential hyperinflationary episode.

In what has been an excessively long electoral campaign, tomorrow Argentina heads to the polls in a general election that promises to be exhilarating. 

As we’ve become accustomed to, the situation couldn’t be worse, with runaway inflation destroying the population’s already beleaguered purchasing power, a peso-dollar exchange rate that is always on the verge of another major jump, and a devastating situation of political polarisation that adds further economic uncertainty. In that context, ultra-libertarian economist Javier Milei’s star continues to shine bright, calling “check” on the mainstream political ecosystem as the bi-coalitionism that had become hegemonic over the past several decades begins to crumble. Having lost complete confidence in opinion polls and surveys, the “word on the street” is that Peronist candidate Sergio Massa (Unión por la Patria) and anti-Kirchnerite opposition leader Patricia Bullrich (Juntos por el Cambio) are fighting for a spot in the expected run-off against Milei, if indeed there is a run-off. Beyond the electoral speculation, and regardless of Sunday’s result, a new era has emerged where a right-wing outsider has managed to put the traditional parties on their knees, begging the electorate to avoid the consequences of a fateful third-place. At the same time, society is on edge about what can and will happen starting Monday given serious economic fragilities, with some even speaking of a potential hyperinflationary episode. Whether Argentina can manage an orderly transition is purely up to its political class, which hasn’t inspired much confidence in the past.

Milei has undoubtedly become the star of the show. His surprise victory in the PASO primaries appears to have consolidated his position and further fuelled his ego. The libertarian has put dollarisation at the centre of his campaign, together with the idea of eradicating the political “caste.” Male youths have become predominant among his supporters but the libertarian’s great magnetism is attracting people of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds. They see Milei as the great leader who will finally end this centuries-old cycle of decrepitude. He is, at the same time, the only one who breaks with political correctness in order to attack a certain “leftist cultural hegemony” that includes feminism, human rights, economic subsidies, free education and healthcare, and other such categories. Not only has he chosen a dictatorship denier as his vice-presidential candidate (Victoria Villaruel), but he’s spoken about legalising organ trading, the selling of children, and called Pope Francis a pro-totalitarian regime “communist.” He’s a completely different type of politician from what Argentina has seen in the recent past.

Milei is a 21st century phenomenon who responds to a series of global trends that extend well beyond Argentina. The post-war capitalist miracle of the “Western World” ran out of steam at least since the 1970s, meaning middle and lower classes haven’t experienced social ascent while wealth concentrates extremely at the top as a consequence of a financialisation of the global economy. The proliferation of smartphones together with the rise of social media has upended communications, which have become fragmented and controlled by algorithms. That’s how an irascible outsider managed to become Argentina’s most voted-for candidate in the PASO primaries despite lacking the territorial and organisational capacity that was baked into the system in order to keep it under control from external threats like Milei. Among the disillusioned of all ages and social backgrounds, a large group has come to abhor the mainstream cultural paradigm of Western democracies and its progressiveness. Thus, a great part of his appeal is related to an attack on the pillars of Argentina’s version of “woke culture.” Ultimately, Milei’s positioning is in the line of other right-wing populists including Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, where it doesn’t really matter what they say but who they pick as their enemies and how they mock them.

Juntos por el Cambio had built its identity as an anti-Kirchnerite coalition that espouses orthodox economic ideals. Yet the failure of Mauricio Macri’s Presidency, together with the emergence of a new, more aggressive form of anti-Kirchnerism, has left them dumbfounded. Patricia Bullrich is now trying to put together the pieces of a coalition that had put in the hours over the years in order to develop the elements to successfully govern the nation through a tumultuous series of social and economic reforms that, hypothetically, should unleash the country’s potential. Some analysts blame the primary battle with Horacio Rodríguez Larreta for the coalition’s weak electoral performance, while others indicate that they lost electoral attractiveness once they became Milei’s “cheap brand.” Another issue is the internal struggle between different factions that were united by their anti-Kirchnerism, such as the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) and the hawks among the PRO party. Macri plays a key role and his flirting with Milei clearly hasn’t helped Bullrich, while his decision to crush Rodríguez Larreta took the mayor out of the game.

In Massa’s case, to a certain extent he is lucky to still be in the race. Known for his political flexibility, he took charge of the pan-Peronist ticket knowing it was apparently an insurmountable challenge after the disastrous government led by Alberto Fernández and the coalition’s real boss, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. From the top of the Economy Ministry he sought to show execution and perseverance, but he was never able to contain the devilish duo composed of inflation and the peso-dollar exchange rate. He deserves merit for facing up to the challenge of leading the Economy Ministry in the midst of a never-ending economic crisis, and for his tenacity in going for the presidency with Fernández de Kirchner still in active duty after what Alberto went through. With the “blood” of the economic debacle on his hands, though, it is surprising that he still has chances to make it into the run-off.

Bullrich and Massa broadly represent the political consensus that has been in place since the return of democracy in 1983. Milei is pushing for radical change, noting that different results cannot be expected from doing the same thing. Yet there is a fear regarding governability, as a hypothetical Milei presidency would occur in a context of very limited congressional support. At the same time, Argentina’s political institutions have resisted in the face of difficult challenges in the past, and could potentially help organise a libertarian government.

The time for speculation is behind us now.

Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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