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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 04-05-2024 05:40

The dawn of a new Milei?

Javier Milei has come to terms with the idea that he cannot continue to go it alone with his reform programme

After almost five months in office, President Javier Milei’s administration seems to have come up with a methodology to (at least try to) govern the country’s politics. Tuesday’s vote in the lower house Chamber of Deputies on the trimmed version of his ‘Ley de Bases’ reform bill and accompanying fiscal package won a floor of 140 of 257 lawmakers, a healthy majority that Milei will need to preserve over time, even if only at an issue-by-issue level.

The deputies’ approval is something Milei desperately needed, even though he frequently denied it. Argentina’s president has attacked the political establishment – a.k.a. “the caste” – in every way, shape, or form, to the point of describing Congress as “a nest of rats.” No more – midweek Milei’s office celebrated his first congressional victory and praised “the patriotic work” of lawmakers who supported the bills.

The underlying read is that Milei has come to terms with the idea that he cannot continue to go it alone with his reform programme. Some in his entourage have managed to convince him of this, among them Cabinet Chief Nicolás Posse, under the auspices of Economy Minister Luis Caputo. The latter is the one who has heard time and again from IMF staffers that the austerity programme he is proposing needs to be politically and socially sustainable.

If this shift to pragmatism is consolidated – i.e. if the ruling La Libertad Avanza party manages to get the bills through the Senate in the coming weeks – it could open up an entire new chapter for the Milei administration, one in which “see what I do” will be more important than “hear what I say.” This would mean paying less attention to Milei’s Twitter/X account and more to what gets published in the Official Gazette and what ministers actually get done underneath the government’s noisy communications machine.

There are and will be plenty of examples: in action and in policy. 

For the former, see Milei’s initial reaction to the April 23 march against state university budget cuts – declarations that the protesters were a bunch of “reds” eventually turned into Human Capital Minister Sandra Pettovello meeting with the chancellor of the University of Buenos Aires, Ricardo Gelpi, to reset the relationship, talk money and discuss how to avoid future protests.

For the latter, see how the government has (once again) delayed an increase in utility rates initially announced for February (then moved to May and now put off without a clear deadline in sight). This move has taken place amid growing differences between Luis Caputo and Energy Secretary Eduardo Rodriguez Chirillo in the management of the energy sector. The latter technically reports to the former, but they are not on the same page, especially not when it comes to how and when to untangle the knots of heavy subsidies that have for years kept electricity and natural gas rates artificially low. Forget about saying ‘Viva la Libertad, Carajo!’ to prices for a while, at least until Milei can show the public that he has tamped down inflation to mid- and low-end single digits. 

Until recently, Milei’s words matched the government’s actions. No more? This new varnish of pragmatism, if it is maintained, will either modify the presidential tone or make his words less and less relevant. Milei seems to have come to terms with the idea that there is only so much mileage he can get from going solo on his bold economic programme. So far the polls remain on his side, although one of the most respected of them all, the Di Tella University government trust index, showed a 4.4 percent decline in April – a fourth consecutive monthly drop. This is a warning sign. Milei’s numbers are still high but are lower than his two predecessors, Mauricio Macri and Alberto Fernández, at the same time of their one-term administrations. And we all know how they ended up.

If Milei manages to pass legislation in Congress this month, it is firstly because provincial governors need the carrot of federal funds (in the form of the reinstated Income Tax on salaries, for instance) and, secondly, because the President’s approval ratings continue to look OK. Some legislators, as the head of the Unión Cívica Radical caucus in the lower house, Rodrigo De Loredo, put it, feel beholden to their “anti-caste” constituencies. “This caucus is not voting with [the government] but with the people of Argentina that still have hope,” the UCR leader said in his speech during this week’s congressional debate. 

As this new chapter begins for Milei, his administration will begin to face more pressure to deliver results, will have less margin for excuses and will find fewer external players to blame. The President will need all the help he can possibly find.

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Marcelo J. Garcia

Marcelo J. Garcia

Political analyst and Director for the Americas for the Horizon Engage political risk consultancy firm.

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