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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 25-11-2023 14:16

Method in his madness?

Javier Milei’s solitary rise to the top from almost nowhere in a couple of years is more apparent than real. The key to this success is more like the solution to Agatha Christie’s 'Murder on the Orient Express' – they all did it.

The supreme outsider, the libertarian lion, the lone ranger, one man and his dog (or clones thereof), Argentina’s most raucous brother-and-sister act since Pimpinela, the bullied bully of the presidential debate – however you want to see it, Javier Milei is Argentina’s president-elect as from last Sunday.

And yet this solitary rise to the top from almost nowhere in a couple of years is more apparent than real. The key to this success is more like the solution to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express – they all did it. Firstly, the other half of last Sunday’s run-off sedulously fostered the chainsaw in order to slice the opposition into two (where even at this stage he was joined by ex-president Mauricio Macri, who urged muting Juntos por el Cambio criticism of the libertarians with the argument that they could be needed later as Patricia Bullrich’s junior partners). Then Milei hitched up with Macri and eliminated Bullrich to gain the critical mass to steamroller his run-off rival Sergio Massa. On this basis the “forces of heaven” could almost be dubbed the now extinct Frente de Todos.

Yet this columnist does not entirely buy into this image of Massa as a latter-day Victor Frankenstein ultimately destroyed by his own creation, denying any initiative to Milei himself. The libertarian offered a unique blend of anti-system rage and economic nous as an alternative to the mainstream opposition in his own right – the former is overrated but if sound and fury were everything, any old lunatic would do whereas those underestimated Austrian school monologues lend a credibility along the lines of Bob Dylan’s “don’t criticise what you can’t understand” (like the awe inspired by Latin masses in the traditional Church). The implants to fill the holes in La Libertad Avanza lists of candidates are widely seen as cunningly infiltrated Massa moles but again this columnist begs to differ – Massa people can be just as opportunistic as their master and as often as not switched to Milei because they saw him as the coming man (and guessed right). Yet nor was Milei the supreme manipulator any more than Massa in a scenario much bigger than either man.

At a basic level Milei’s victory is very easy to explain with the only real surprise his margin. More surprising would have been the economy minister’s triumph in the current dire economic context – as Milei said at his closing rally in Córdoba, if he was being called “a leap in the dark,” what would you call nigh-200 percent inflation and around half the population below the poverty line? Exponentially rising poverty was always going to be the deciding factor one way or the other – if dependence on the state counted more, Massa would win and if expulsion from the system, Milei. Beyond all the grim macro-economic indicators lie the erosion of a traditional middle-class self-image and the dislocation of the social fabric in the pandemic without going into corruption or crime.

Even spared such disasters a Massa victory would be going against the way of the world – a slew of opposition victories in the last five years with only a handful of ruling party survivals (only Paraguay in this region’s free elections and not much more than France, India and Brexit Britain in democracies elsewhere). Once the opposition was finally reduced to one option, a failed government was doomed – reduced to a pure scare campaign against Milei as from the November 12 presidential debate, incapable of saying anything in its own favour. Milei did everything possible to lose this election but had no real chance against such mighty factors.

For most pundits last Sunday’s run-off with its loud and clear result is done and dusted, already looking ahead to future questions – who will be in Milei’s streamlined Cabinet, how does he clinch governance with 39 deputies and seven senators and every single province in other hands, how will the economy weather the transition, where will Macri fit in, whither a fragmented Juntos por el Cambio, will Milei sever ties with China and Brazil, etc. etc.? This column will be joining these extremely valid questions and doubts as from next week (strictly speaking, this series should be ending here with all voting now over but we shall see President Alberto Fernández out and Milei inaugurated before finally closing on December 16) but the rest of this space will be looking back at last Sunday’s run-off.

For those who want the bottom line of that result but can only tolerate one figure, that number would be 11.5 – Milei finished almost 11.5 percent ahead of Massa’s 11.5 million voters. For those with more appetite for number-crunching, here goes.

Milei’s winning percentage of 55.69 percent is the largest in the last 40 years of democratic voting (eclipsing even Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s 2011 landslide of 54.11 percent) but the mandate is also relative as a run-off with over 6.5 million of his 14.5 million votes borrowed and mostly negative against the other guy.

Before going any further into the run-off, let us first say what it was not in defiance of the advance billing. On the assumption it was too close to call, there were fears of no final result for another week amid the loud libertarian noises anticipating fraud on the eve of last weekend. Milei’s margin of 11.38 percent banished both fears – incidents of fraud were reported (especially in the Peronist stronghold of La Matanza while at least one libertarian scrutineer in Quilmes misbehaved) but La Libertad Avanza was obviously in no mood to complain, concluding that there were no gross irregularities affecting the result. The opposition also protested loudly beforehand about a long weekend maliciously designed to remove their voters with the means to travel but the turnout of 76.3 percent was barely below the first round’s 77.6 percent.

As stated above, the surprise was the margin more than the result – a few last-minute polls silenced by the veda electoral curfew had placed Milei several percent ahead but nobody was anywhere near double digits. Expectations of a tight race were entirely logical because even 100 percent Juntos por el Cambio transfer from the first round would only give Milei 53.94 percent, thus requiring at least 85 percent of the Bullrich vote, but he ended up on 55.69 percent, topping the sum total of purple and yellow first-round votes nationwide except in Buenos Aires City and Province and in the northeast (Chaco, Corrientes and Formosa). From the Córdoba voting (where Massa nearly doubled his abject first-round 13.42 percent to almost 26 percent) we might guestimate that Milei picked up just over half of the Juan Schiaretti October 22 vote (6.86 percent) but this still sees 90 percent or more of the Juntos votes heading Milei’s way. As suggested in last Saturday’s column, rank-and-file voters were evidently more primitively linear than their anguished and divided leadership, being simply fed up with this government and wanting it out.

At the other end of the run-off the big surprise was the slender Massa margin in Buenos Aires Province (50.74 percent as against 40.25 percent) when 10 times that advantage had been sought. In the entire country Massa could only top 60 percent in four places – in the province of Santiago del Estero (68.5 percent) and in the Greater Buenos Aires districts of Florencia Varela, La Matanza and Presidente Perón with Formosa the only other province to go his way. By way of contrast Milei topped 60 percent in seven provinces – Córdoba (74.05 percent), Mendoza (70.2 percent), San Luis (67.99 percent), Santa Fe (62.82 percent), Entre Ríos (61.48 percent), San Juan (60.6 percent) and Neuquén (60.42 percent) with a striking predominance of central and Cuyo midwestern provinces – not to mention San Isidro and Vicente López, as well as the communes of Belgrano, Palermo and Recoleta in this city. Milei thus only needed this city or Córdoba (with over a million votes in both) to obliterate Massa’s BA Province advantage – adding Buenos Aires Province and City, Milei had 5,808,102 votes to 5,689,630 for Massa, barely one percent ahead which only makes Milei’s landslide inland all the more overwhelming. Transport subsidies should not be underestimated as a key factor in that difference.

Space has virtually run out for today but perhaps some more numbers can be squeezed in next week, always depending on a complex transition.

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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