Halloween last midweek set the tone for a run-off which all too many people are seeing as a “theory of the two demons” revisited. Two demons going to the polls but three witches stirring the brew – Sergio Massa and Javier Milei might be facing off in just a fortnight’s time but the great protagonist of the current political imbroglio has in many ways been a third five-letter surname beginning with “M”: ex-president Mauricio Macri. “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning or in rain?” with the latter half of that famous Macbeth quotation being pretty much a spot-on forecast of the economic weather conditions (not to mention that there will be three, not two voting options on November 19 – Massa, Milei or blank).
Nevertheless, the answer to those questions according to the William Shakespeare play is: “When the hurly-burly’s done. When the battle’s lost and won.” So the question being asked everywhere is who will end up winning and losing the battle at the close of the next fortnight of hurly-burly campaigning and debating, in which direction are the thumbs pricking?
The response to that question need not be rocket science – it could be answered with the very simple point that when Peronism or its opposition stand united and when Peronism or its opposition are divided, the former is always going to win and we could stop right here but there is plenty more space to fill so let us try and look beyond the obvious.
To start with an intuitive rather than rational way of calling this election, if this column began by speaking of three witches rather than two demons, there is a local saying: “No hay dos sin tres” (“no twos without threes”). If we have had two straight surprises in the voting so far this year (Milei’s upset PASO primary victory in August and then Massa’s unexpectedly strong performance last month when arguably the planet’s least successful economic czar), why not three? And the surprise here just as much as the vote for change would surely be Milei winning with Massa loading all the dice in his favour.
Such numerology might favour Milei but hardly any numbers – if we look beyond the occult to the more independent opinion polls, this columnist at least has only seen one favouring the libertarian via negative rather than positive feedback. Asked which candidate they would never vote for, 59 percent picked Massa while 41 percent replied Milei, who would thus be heading for a landslide win if those respondents could be taken at their word.
But if this columnist were asked to give a ballpark percentage for this month’s run-off, it would be 53-47 for Massa rather than 59-41 for Milei. This forecast is based on the simple addition of the deceptively consistent 30 percent (or almost) for the libertarian lion in both the PASO primary and last month’s first round to the 17 percent PASO vote for Milei’s new best friend Patricia Bullrich, losing some of those voters but picking up an approximately equal number of odds and ends elsewhere. This guestimate is more of a ceiling than a floor since it is hard to see anybody beyond these two core groups voting for Milei, even in anti-Kirchnerite Córdoba. But then again Massa went to such extraordinary lengths to maximise the mobilisation of Peronism that his first-round 36.7 percent of the vote could be something of a ceiling too.
Yet it would be folly to pigeonhole voting into such rigid categories in a volatile country amid the liquid universe of modern communications. Even Milei’s virtually constant percentage (although with around 530,000 more votes due to a higher turnout) is deceptive, as stated above – all the evidence is that he lost numerous votes to Massa while pinching many tactical votes from his opposition rival Bullrich to stay in the same place. While the two extremes barely altered their percentages from the PASO primaries (with the FIT leftists inching up from 2.61 to 2.7 percent), all three presidential candidates in the middle experienced broad shifts. The game-changer was almost three million more votes for Unión por la Patria nationwide (of which Buenos Aires Province contributed 1.4 million) and almost 630,000 less for Juntos por el Cambio while the conservative Peronist Córdoba Governor Juan Schiaretti almost doubled his 3.7 percent PASO haul by adding 870,000 votes when minor candidates are almost invariably squeezed out. Neither do the 2.16 million new voters suffice to explain the swing towards Massa nor can the drop in the Bullrich vote explain all of Schiaretti’s gains, even assuming that all disenchanted supporters of Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta voted for him – the mosaic of voter movements becomes impossibly complex.
Even if the run-off runs true to form (which still remains to be seen), the future party landscape is hazy. The crisis in Juntos por el Cambio from Macri’s gratuitously hasty alignment with Milei without any sign of an effort to hold the opposition coalition together seems terminal but the fall-out is uncertain. In both the PASO primary and last month’s election Juntos have lagged behind Milei but if he fails to reach the Presidency, they will be the opposition with the structure and the parliamentary numbers, not the libertarian. But should mass desertions to a new right lead to the rump party being eclipsed in Congress, what would be their destiny – would the Radicals and Rodríguez Larreta doves have the critical mass to remain the main opposition in their own right or should they seek to join forces with Schiaretti or even explore Massa’s opportunistic national unity proposals? But all this is looking far too much into the future as a country running on empty enters the penultimate week before the final showdown.