Today is the 957th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, famously concluding with King Harold receiving an arrow in his eye, thus ending his life, the battle and Anglo-Saxon rule over England. In last Sunday’s debate opposition presidential candidate Patricia Bullrich evidently had something in her eye although clearly not an arrow – could it be an omen for Argentina’s own battle of the hustings? Or does the real battlefield lie elsewhere in the money markets voting every day (as against every couple of years for the citizenry at large) where the combatants are far more the government’s Sergio Massa and libertarian Javier Milei but where the vanquished risks falling below Bullrich? Will it be end of story next Sunday or will there be a November run-off? The swings are huge and the margins tiny.
The title of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 vignette says it all for the current scenario – the pits for the four-digit peso against the greenback and the “swings and arrows of electoral fortune” (rephrasing Shakespeare slightly). The pit and the pendulum feed each other with “the worse, the better” logic, appealing to most candidates with Milei’s advice against renewing fixed-term peso deposits the outstanding example – even if this seems more effect than cause of a general run on the peso, despite the presidential bid to depict it otherwise, opportunism pursuing his stubborn belief that the higher the buck, the easier dollarisation, rather than being the man printing the money. Yet ultimately everybody loses with “the worse, the better,” the election winner perhaps more than anybody if he (or she?) is left with the train wreck.
If generals are always preparing to fight the previous war, as attributed to Winston Churchill, both the Sunday presidential debates would seem to be cases in point. The first debate failed to appreciate the full impact of Martín Insaurralde’s yacht scandal in time for entry into the precooked scripts with the token mentions almost worse than nothing. Determined to redress this lapse, Bullrich ended up overcompensating with an almost monothematic aggression against Kirchnerite corruption – preceded by a barrage of ads with a miniature model of the “Penal Doctora Cristina Fernández de Kirchner” penitentiary (which Derek Zoolander would describe as “a prison for ants”). Many pundits named her the winner of last Sunday’s debate on that basis but she was fighting a past battle, little suspecting that a new war was beginning in the form of this week’s dollar turning a stratospheric blue – one calling for proposals (which Massa was at least offering, however bogus), not finger-pointing.
But just as the first debate failed to take Insaurralde into its stride, last Sunday’s was overtaken by the horrors in Israel with a couple of words condemning the Hamas attack (not shared by the only Jewish candidate in the debate, ironically enough) no substitute for a serious analysis of Argentina’s place in the world. The absence of international relations from both debates was indeed perhaps the most striking omission with the possible exception of a healthcare system in crisis (security, production, labour, human development, housing and the environment were last Sunday’s menu). Since everybody seems agreed over consigning the splendid isolationism of Kirchnerism to the past (not least because exports continue being seen as the shortest cut to dollars), Argentina’s reinsertion into the world becomes a central issue with BRICS membership already well worth debating with valid arguments on both sides, even before the Middle East blew up.
Not too much to add on the second debate – definitely livelier than the first but paradoxically perhaps less interesting precisely because it came closer to expectations, quite apart from the intensity of the subsequent week. A feisty Bullrich, a defensive Massa (almost favoured by Insaurralde competing with a dire economy for attention) and an uncomfortable Milei all seemed to revert to the original casting, making things more predictable. Leftist Myriam Bregman remained an articulate voice of social protest while Juan Schiaretti is almost a local version of the Scottish National Party – obsessed with his native Córdoba, around which a true federalism can no more revolve than around Buenos Aires.
Not only did no single candidate win but no pair of them managed to tango each other into a polarisation dominating the debate, despite various efforts in that direction. Milei seemed schizoid between polarising against Massa to leave Bullrich out of the equation and concentrating on poaching her votes as ideologically closer to him while the economy minister already has enough problems. Massa would also like to squeeze Bullrich out of the conversation but he should be careful what he wishes for – it would not take much of a stampede of her voters to Milei to give the libertarian a first-round win and deny Peronism any run-off chances.
Many specific points and minor details could be explored but this column will confine itself to just two. Firstly, a lively punch-up nevertheless went unacceptably below the belt at times with totally unsubstantiated assertions of Bullrich being a “murderous Montonero” (Milei) and PRO deputy Gerardo Milman being behind the attempt to assassinate Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (Massa). And secondly, Bullrich’s baffling decision to read her final minute from a paper at all odds with her previous spontaneity.
Despite which she remains this columnist’s tip to be the next president. The combo of Insaurralde and the peso freefall sees the wheels coming off Massa’s plan platita which already needs a new diminutive (those “tenemos con quién” ads referring to the man in charge of the ongoing meltdown are incomprehensible) while in the run-off fear displacing the anger and hope on which Milei feeds would deny him a majority. But should Massa hang onto second place, he would be the one playing Emmanuel Macron to Milei’s Marine Le Pen. And if Milei won the PASO primary, he could go on winning. After next weekend we will know more.