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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 19-08-2023 08:05

Milei and reaping what you sowed

There could be another 1.2 million voters heading to the ballots on October 22 from increased participation. Assuming Bullrich and Massa absorb all of their primary rivals’ voters, will they be able to capture enough of those ‘new’ voters?

It’s interesting to note that most political analysts forecasted a surprising outcome in last weekend’s stunning PASO primaries that saw ultra-libertarian economist Javier Milei take the victory, yet none of them predicted he’d actually win. Indeed, Milei’s electoral triumph over Juntos por el Cambio and Unión por la Patria was so complete that it included victories in all but eight districts, including, of course, Buenos Aires City — historical bastion of Mauricio Macri’s PRO party — and Buenos Aires Province — where Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is trying to protect her sphere of influence. A week on, Milei’s win continues to reverberate through the socio-political ecosystem, leaving his opponents scrambling to figure out how to reconfigure their electoral strategies ahead of the general election scheduled for October 22. His confidence is so high that he’s speaking about a first-round victory, a turn of events that appeared unthinkable just a few days ago, and in great part is generating a positive feedback loop for the libertarian who sees his aura grow with each passing day. Whether or not all of this is an illusion or Argentina’s version of extravagant far-right outsider ala Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro remains to be seen.

There are a few macro trends that are unquestionable and must be acknowledged before venturing into any form of analysis. Milei took 30 percent of the vote at the national level, followed by Juntos por el Cambio with 28.3 percent (17 percent for Patricia Bullrich and 11.3 percent for Horacio Rodríguez Larreta), and Unión por la Patria with 27.3 percent (Sergio Massa with 21.4 percent and Juan Grabois with 5.9 percent). Behind the three leading coalitions came blank votes (4.8 percent) in an election where only 69.6 percent of the electorate showed up to vote, despite ballot-casting being obligatory.

Milei, who was polling around 20 percent, was the clear winner, taking the vote and 16 provinces with it. Within Juntos por el Cambio a bitter primary battle between Rodríguez Larreta and Bullrich saw the former security minister progress, positioning her to battle it out with Milei for the Presidency. Bullrich’s victory suggests she had the right read on what the electorate was demanding, which is more Milei and less of the centrist moderation espoused by Rodríguez Larreta, who had a horrible election. Furthermore, this represents a victory of sorts for Macri, who picked Bullrich to battle it out against Rodríguez Larreta’s internal ambitions and always had (and still has) kind words for Milei. Yet it was a troubling election for Juntos por el Cambio overall, one which saw Milei reaping what they sowed. Even more troubling for them was the proximity of the governing coalition, a mere one percentage point away despite the impairments of a disastrous administration and an economy that is spinning out of control. This also helped mask a disastrous election for the pan-Peronist front, the worst ever for a united Peronism force whose only satisfaction was an initial victory in Buenos Aires Province by Axel Kicillof. Too little for Fernández de Kirchner.

Argentina’s socio-political ecosystem initially watched the results in a state of shock, only to react by seeming to assume that Milei will become Argentina’s next president. This situation is apparent when reading the mainstream media, where his different measures are being dissected and talking heads on either side of la grieta attempt to debunk them. The runaway peso-dollar exchange rate – Argentina’s typical fear gauge – went through the roof, even though that seems to pre-emptively happen every time. In part, this obsession with Milei was already visible when his star started to shine more brightly. By April it had made him the single most popular politician in the country and given him a serious chance of becoming the single-most voted candidate in the PASO primaries. He quickly receded in opinion polls and started coming under fire for supposedly selling spots on his candidate’s lists and other nonsense. Whether it was an underestimation of his voting intention or the corrupt practices of Argentina’s political polling industry, or a combination of both, he had been relegated to an unequivocal third place.

Milei’s new centrality will allow him to take his message further away from his core voters, maybe even producing a self-fulfilling prophecy that will land him in the Casa Rosada. He is the frontrunner ahead of an expected run-off and the star of the moment, making the media rounds. His every word is amplified and inspected. Stories about Milei are the most-read articles online and social media is having a feast. Everyone has an opinion on the ultraliberal economist, even popular singer Lali Espósito and model Pampita. In general, the intelligentsia seems appalled by him, much like what happened in the United States with Donald Trump and in Brazil with Jair Bolsonaro. All of this will probably help Milei consolidate his hardcore vote ahead of the general election and probably draw in new voters from both major coalitions.

One of the main issues ahead of the general elections has to do with the turnout. A quick comparison with the 2019 elections shows that turnout grew from 76.4 percent to 80.4 percent from the PASO primaries to the general election. At the same time, the number of blank votes fell from 3.4 percent to 1.6 percent. Just using those percentages means there could be another 1.2 million voters heading to the ballots on October 22 from increased turnout. Assuming Bullrich and Massa absorb all of their primary rivals’ voters, will they be able to capture enough of those ‘new’ voters to secure their spots in the second round? In terms of overall numbers, Juntos por el Cambio was 418,323 votes behind Milei, while Unión por la Patria was another 237,340 behind.

According to a poll put together by CB Consultora, 51.1 percent of those who submitted blank votes or didn’t cast a vote could choose Milei, compared to 37.9 percent for Bullrich and 25.7 percent for Massa. The battle lines are drawn. Milei is probably the most comfortable as he has to confront with Massa and the Peronists, which is his bread and butter, and differentiate himself from Bullrich and Juntos por el Cambio, which in these primaries has proven it is no longer “together” (“juntos”) nor does it represent “change” (“cambio”), as Martín Tetáz — a national deputy for the opposition — put it. From within Juntos, Bullrich will have to figure out how to try and claw back some of the votes they lost to Milei, especially outside of the Buenos Aires metropolitan region, while not fully alienating the centrists who, historically, have determined elections. In Peronist headquarters, the game is different. Cristina appears to have acknowledged defeat and is pushing hard to retain control of Buenos Aires Province, where Kicillof’s lead is still thin, and where Máximo Kirchner and Eduardo ‘Wado’ De Pedro have to battle it out for their congressional seats. For Massa, he will have to figure out how to balance his role as economy minister in the middle of a difficult economic crisis that includes spiralling inflation, while using the party and state “apparatus” (i.e. “aparato” in Spanish, which really refers to geographic organisation and deployment along with disposition of economic resources) in order to try and make it to an impossible run-off.

The real campaign has begun.

Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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