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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 26-08-2023 06:00

Milei – melee or millennial?

The Milei vote can be seen as a backlash against impoverishment, laid at the door of a regime belittling self-made wealth, meritocracy and savings.

Over seven million votes for libertarian Javier Milei (or 7,116,352, to be exact) is a huge number, more than the entire populations of a majority of the world’s countries and territories (129 out of 234) – but is it big enough to contain its own contradictions? Because the contradictions abound, starting with the single word of his own pet self-definition of “anarcho-capitalist,” a virtual oxymoron.

Far from being any child of anarchy, capitalism worldwide only began to take root after well over a millennium of feudalism and royal absolutism was followed by ground rules being set in place by the constitutions of bourgeois liberalism – in a more Argentine context, when not used to describe the pre-1853 caudillo warlords, the word “anarchism” evokes the disruptive violence of Mediterranean immigrants peaking in the half-century before the execution of Severino di Giovanni in 1931, a retrograde aberration from a remote past rather than any brave new world for the future of self-employed youth.

And yet the word “anarcho-capitalism” reflects as well as anything the open-ended outcome of this month’s open-ended voting, as expressed by this column’s alliterative headline – would a Milei presidency stagger into the melee of a collision course between drastic reform and vested interests or would it finally take Argentina into this millennium on the back of a new commodity boom put to wiser use?

Just as an onion has several layers, so there are several levels of meaning to the Milei vote. Thus the same man, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), had both a formidably complex analysis – his 1930 masterpiece The Revolt of the Masses (impossible to summarise in a few words but describing the self-empowerment of the mass man long before smart phones) – and an extremely simple message – “Argentinos, a las cosas” (“get on with it”)” in 1939 – which could equally be applied to explain Milei.

Applying the above to this month’s voting is even more complex because in Argentina the revolt of the masses is virtually a synonym of a revolt of the middle class, so strongly has this status always been the self-image of a majority in this country, even where household incomes are flirting with the poverty line. The Milei vote can be seen as a backlash against that impoverishment, laid at the door of a regime belittling self-made wealth, meritocracy and savings.

This revolt of the middle class perhaps best explains the breadth of a vote spread fairly evenly across the usual demographic categories – half of male youth under 30 is never going to add up to seven million. Last week’s column underlined hinterland payback based on libertarian triumph in 16 inland provinces but the jury must stay out here – it could have been the interior stunningly reminding a bossy Buenos Aires City and Province that they house less than 45 percent of the population (not to mention electing 95 of the 257 deputies and only six of the 72 senators) but it could also have arisen by default due to the possibly malicious inaction of already elected governors nipping in the bud any nationwide Juntos por el Cambio landslide.

The jury should stay out in general – it is quite astonishing how often a “game over” conclusion is being drawn from a three-pronged result. Many people are starting to assume that PASO primaries are perversely more decisive than the real thing but their memories are incomplete. It was indeed “game over” in both 2011 and 2019 (an absolute Kirchnerite majority in the former case and almost in the latter) but many people have forgotten how in the 11 weeks between the PASO primaries and the general elections in 2015, Daniel Scioli was assumed to be the next president about as widely as Milei now after his PASO vote of 38.7 percent came so close to the magic percentage of 40 with Mauricio Macri lagging on 24.5 percent within a total Cambiemos vote of just over 30 percent.

So why is everybody talking about Javier Milei? Partly because of the novelty value of his unconventional approach and partly because everybody is still recovering from the shock of the August 13 upset with the campaign for the general elections still eight weekends away not formally due to start until next weekend (50 days before the general elections).

This lack of any formal campaigning left a vacuum which was partly filled with frantic reports of supermarket looting evoking memories of 2001 – impossible to say without further scrutiny how much was social unrest, how much politically malicious exaggeration, how much a predictable response to the price impact of post-electoral devaluation and how much the usual criminal activity. If a 2001-style new era is on the way, the wheel has come full circle because Milei is echoing the “begone with them all” rage while recruiting his team from the same Domingo Cavallo who was a central focus of the wrath back then.

Not too much from the main candidates last week. While Milei basked in all the attention, Unión por la Patria presidential candidate Sergio Massa abroad in the United States for much of the week was far more the economy minister. Patricia Bullrich will need until the start of formal campaigning next weekend to work out via focus groups etc. whether her strategy best lies in outbidding Milei on the right or seeking to retain and gain voters in a middle ground of uncertain dimensions – she is not playing any cards just yet although the hints towards naming Carlos Melconian as her economic czar keep growing stronger, not necessarily as the best within an excellent team of economists but as the most histrionic to compete with Milei.

One person making a definite choice was Buenos Aires City mayoral candidate Jorge Macri who picked fellow-minister Clara Muzzio as his running-mate for a purely PRO ticket (which will not mend fences with his primary rival, Radical Senator Martín Lousteau). City Hall has decided to drop electronic voting for the general elections after the fiasco a fortnight ago although having two systems rather than the more modern one (which speeds up vote-counting impressively when it works) should be made the culprit. Civic Coalition leader Elisa Carrió dropping her candidacy for a non-existent Parlasur hardly seems worth mentioning.

Otherwise plenty of speculation, forecasting and jockeying with ex-president Mauricio Macri far more in the middle of things than President Alberto Fernández supposedly running the country. But since the latter attended the inauguration of his new Paraguayan colleague Santiago Peña immediately after the PASO primaries (which at least gave him something to do), this columnist would like to take advantage of that occasion to revive a forecast made in this space last May on the basis of our election results being closer to those of Paraguay in April than most people might imagine, despite the huge differences between the two countries. On April 30 Paraguayans gave 42.7 percent of their votes for the centre-right (Peña’s Colorados), 27.5 percent for the centre-left and 22.9 percent for their Milei equivalent on the populist right. This prediction is somewhat skewed by the Paraguayan Colorados not only being the centre-right option but also a ruling party going even further back than the Peronists (with no less than 89 years in government since their foundation in 1887) and it also comes from an analyst whose maiden forecast was naming Italo Argentino Luder as Argentina’s next president four decades ago but I will close this column by going out on a limb and saying that Milei might be the flavour of the month but he will not be this country’s future leader.

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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