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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 22-06-2024 05:53

Milei may have to come down to earth

When talking high theory, the president is in his element, but he is far less self-confident when it comes to practical matters; he must feel they are beneath him and can be left to his sister.

After six months in the Pink House, Javier Milei finally managed to get a watered-down version of his ambitious economic-reform bill through the Senate, with Vice-President Victoria Villarruel casting the deciding vote. 

For the self-proclaimed leader of a world-shaking rebellion against the international status quo, the long delay cannot have been entirely unwelcome. While it lasted, Milei could continue to rail against the “fiscal degenerates” who make up the “filthy political caste” he thinks are responsible for ruining Argentina and accuse them of preventing him from repairing the damage they have done, but now he will have to take more interest in the nitty-gritty business of running the country.

Much as Milei may dislike the idea, his performance in office will be judged by what happens here on earth, not by the alleged results of the ongoing battle between the “heavenly hosts” he says are on his side and the despicable Commies who oppose them. When talking high theory, the president is in his element, but he is far less self-confident when it comes to practical matters; he must feel they are beneath him and can be left to his sister, presidential chief-of-staff Karina. As far as he is concerned, it is natural to let her take charge of what in his view are merely household chores.

If the opinion polls are anything to go by, the 36-36 split in the Senate reflected with rare precision the gap that separates those who think that, by and large, a capitalist order similar to the ones prevalent in the developed world would be far better than any conceivable alternative, and the similar number who would dearly like to preserve the old order. However, there are signs that things are slowly shifting in Milei’s direction. Even diehard Peronists are finding it difficult to persuade people that a flat-broke country should be able to spend its way out of the bottomless pit into which they drove it. However, pointing this out in one thing; putting the country back on its feet is something very different.

Since last December, Argentina’s government has been very much a one-man show, with absolutely everything revolving around Milei. Nobody else has been able to get a word in without running the risk of being the recipient of a furious presidential tongue-lashing. This state of affairs may have done wonders for Milei’s ego, but from now on he will have to rely on the administrative abilities of a wide range of subordinates, Cabinet ministers, secretaries, under-secretaries and others right down to the most junior level. Unless they manage to deliver the goods, he will be blamed for their shortcomings.

This almost happened when the over-extended Human Capital Ministry, headed by his friend Sandra Pettovello, came under fierce fire for its mishandling of the food stocks earmarked for soup kitchens which cater to large numbers of impoverished people. Luckily for Milei, here as in the rest of the world, the public’s attention span is mercifully short, so that particular scandal was quickly eclipsed by more newsworthy events such as the Senate vote, followed by the sharp drop of the monthly inflation rate as measured by consumer prices which fell to 4.2 percent; the highest in the world but the lowest Argentina has seen since the beginning of 2022.

By electing an outsider who did not represent any of the major parties, Argentines made it clear that they wanted to replace most of the traditional “political class” with something radically different. Given what has happened to the country, such sentiments were easy to understand, but few, if any, asked themselves just how the desired change could be brought about without mayhem on a revolutionary scale.

Thanks to electoral timetables that in a democracy have to be respected, there are still plenty of legislators who represent the Argentina that existed before Milei and his supporters suddenly irrupted and tore a big hole in what until then had been the political order. Milei’s libertarians hope they will win many of the 24 Senate seats and the 127 in the Chamber of Deputies that are scheduled to be disputed in the elections that are due to be held next year, but for many months to come they will have to make do with the handful they already have.

Just how many libertarians are true believers in what Milei calls “anarcho-capitalism” is anyone’s guess. There may be some, but most seem to be either recent converts to the creed who have yet to read the sacred texts or opportunists who hopped onto his bandwagon before it reached power and are determined to make the most of their good fortune, which is one reason they are proving so quarrelsome. Even if they all do their best to provide the country with an efficient and honest government, there are simply not enough of them to fill all the many administrative slots that remain open. This means that Milei will have little choice but to join forces with political groupings whose members are as keen on free-market capitalism as he is but have no desire to do away with the State and have no time for the mystical musings he enjoys indulging in.

Meanwhile, defenders of the old order will continue to wait for the moment when the general public begins to turn against him. Last December, many assumed it would come about after a couple of months. They were disappointed. By now the cannier among them will have realised that it is still too early for them to try and unseat Milei by staging violent street protests which, as it happens, is the only activity they are good at.

For the Peronists, who have survived as a political force thanks largely to the assumption that, despite their own inability to govern well, they are fully capable of ensuring that nobody else can do so for long, their failure to intimidate Milei must have come as an eye-opener. While some will have reached the conclusion that Peronism has had its day so they might as well try something else, others presumably hope that by continuing to harass the government they will scare off would-be foreign investors. Among those who chant “the country is not for sale” there must be some who understand that, seeing people like them will be included in the packet, there should be many out there who would never dream of trying to buy even a tiny bit of it. Were they to succeed, it would be terrible for most of their compatriots, but beneficial for those who like the way things are.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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