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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 06-08-2023 19:01

Punctuated equilibrium and the PASO conundrum

The PASO primaries, along with an end to the hegemony of the two leading political coalitions, has resulted in a breakdown of the status quo. Like punctuated equilibrium, it feels like major change is occurring rapidly and as we speak.

Heading into the PASO primaries — which have become part of a de facto two/three-round electoral system — amidst absolute uncertainty, opinion polls and surveys are one of the few things analysts can look at to try and make something out of what’s happening. Interestingly, shifts in public sentiment appear to occur rapidly and in short time–spans, resulting in lasting and meaningful tendencies hard to break. In the world of biology and evolutionary science it is in some way related to the concept of punctuated equilibrium, by which the process of natural selection isn’t always gradual but rather shifts into high–gear in the face of certain circumstances that interrupt a state of stasis, leading to “strong selection and rapid change,” according to UC Berkeley's Museum of Paleontology. Furthermore, at this juncture it is important to focus on what could happen during the PASO primaries and their immediate aftermath, as the general elections are so far out that it is almost impossible to imagine what could happen between now and then.

The main event of the night will be the showdown between Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and Patricia Bullrich for the leading spot in the opposition ticket. In a tightly contested primary, the City Mayor had gotten off to a quick start, refusing to accept the status of candidate but clearly in campaign mode over a year ago. While he has proven an able administrator of the country’s richest district, his lack of charisma and a tectonic shift in the composition of the anti–Peronist ideology gave rise to two contenders, one internal (Bullrich) and another to the “right” of Juntos por el Cambio, Javier Milei.

When Rodríguez Larreta’s campaign got underway he seemed like the ideal candidate to face off with a disheveled pan-Peronist front, with Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in the midst of a tumultuous civil war which seemed destined to political failure and therefore excluding the governing coalition from a competitive election in 2023. He had Mauricio Macri’s support, having been his right-hand man in the City when the Pro party founder was mayor, and after that the highest-profile leader within Juntos por el Cambio, forced to confront with the Fernández-Fernández tandem in the aftermath of the Covid-19 era of collaboration. He was a proven and effective manager who prioritised consensus over conflict in a country ravaged by polarisation.

It’s not clear whether the rise of Milei, along with José Luis Espert, was the cause of a revival of far-right ideology in Argentina, or whether a reaction to the bi-coalition hegemony led to a move toward extremes, but clearly the idea that Milei was nothing more than a paratrooper who would quickly run out of steam led to an underestimation of the phenomenon by Rodríguez Larreta and his electoral team. The clear beneficiary here was Bullrich, who had come to represent Macri and the hardliners within Juntos por el Cambio. Once the Fernández-Fernández administration began to show signs of exhaustion, Macri raised his voice and began to be actively critical, while revealing a political ideology further to the right than what he espoused as president. He appointed Bullrich as his successor and placeholder, leading the Pro party as she began to dispute spaces of power with Rodríguez Larreta. Ultimately, Bullrich appears to have reached a level of political maturity where she no longer needs the blessing of the party founder, having become the frontrunner by appealing to a deep anti–Kirchnerite sentiment closer to Milei than to Rodríguez Larreta.

While Rodríguez Larreta may have misread the field, thinking he had already won the primary and therefore campaigning to win a general election, Bullrich played to the sentiment of the opposition’s core voters. Given the PASO system is not a party primary but a general vote, it remains to be seen who picked the right strategy. And after that, whether the victor will drag along the votes of the loser. Some polls suggest Rodríguez Larreta’s voter would transition toward Bullrich but not vice-versa.

At the same time, Milei has proven he is no short–term fad but the real deal. The question is whether he’ll be able to pull off a figure closer to 20 percent rather than 15 percent in the general election. This matters in great part because it could draw important votes from the Juntos por el Cambio primary, helping to determine who pulls through, and later who will make it to the run-off. Pollsters have identified that Milei attracts a younger, male vote disillusioned and angry with the system. He’s framed Argentina’s problem as “the caste” and vows to end the political class as we know it by applying an Austrian economic model including dollarisation. If his “floor” is around 15 percent of the vote, he will have confirmed a further fragmentation in the Argentine political field which could lead to a schism in Juntos por el Cambio – not before the election, but it will have long-lasting effects.

With regards to Unión por la Patria, Economy Minister Sergio Massa has few doubts that he will win the primaries. Social leader Juan Grabois was a smart pick as a contender by his internal enemies, as he has no real chances of winning but manages to attract an important portion of the Peronist vote which would have a much harder time voting Massa than the left, or even Milei. It feels as if Cristina played her cards right, giving up Eduardo ‘Wado’ De Pedro’s presidential candidacy in exchange for the pole position in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies races in the Province of Buenos Aires, where Axel Kicillof hopes to retain the governorship. Massa probably understood that he has few chances to win, but that doesn’t rule him out just yet. And a presidential candidacy with the support of the governing party, even if lost, is a great opportunity to set himself up for the future. Looking across the aisle, the bitter primary between Rodríguez Larreta and Bullrich, along with the emergence of Milei, could give him a chance going into the runoff, as some surveys have indicated. All is not lost and Massa is still the Economy Minister meaning he holds the keys to the government budgets.

The PASO primaries, along with an end to the hegemony of the two leading political coalitions, has resulted in a breakdown of the status quo. Like punctuated equilibrium, it feels like major change is occurring rapidly and as we speak. Whatever comes out of this social experiment could lay the foundations for a new and enduring stasis. Another major variable is the high incidence of absenteeism along with blank and spoiled ballots, which in some regional elections have come in first or second place. This, in a PASO scenario, means there is a substantial portion of the population which no longer wants to participate in the game that is democracy. It remains to be seen whether this occurs in the national election, and whether it will change heading into the real thing rather than the PASO. As has become common to say here, the coin has been tossed.

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia


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