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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 26-01-2024 06:55

Martín D’Alessandro: The trickery of populism

Juntos por el Cambio's support of President Javier Milei's came cheap and it will have consequences.

Many traditional Juntos por el Cambio voters are supporting the changes proposed by Javier Milei, both its contents and the urgency demanded by the President. They accept that if it is not done this way, nothing can improve in a country that is effectively full of hindrances and corruption. 

The striking thing is that this electorate, which has resisted two decades of Kirchnerism’s attempts of concentration of power and anti-democratic impulses, is now willing to allow them to do so in the case of Milei.

Some electoral studies have shown that 80 percent of the vote received by Patricia Bullrich in the first round in October leaned towards Milei in the November run-off, and that transfer of votes had political effects. 

The most important one is that it delivered a President with wide electoral support. Even though the reasons that led many to vote for Milei in the second round run-off were multiple (among them, to punish the outgoing government, to give a lesson to the political class, to avoid Kirchnerism at all costs, or to bring about some change), Milei interprets that 56 percent of Argentines want a true libertarian revolution in the country.

Based on that diagnosis, Milei intends to concentrate power and drastically advance against the caste and corporations, with the support of much of the population. Without another type of political resources, the President is attempting to turn an artificial majority (the run-off unifies what in principle is scattered) into a consolidated support by public opinion. 

The curious thing about the timing of the consensus is that much of Juntos por el Cambio’s voters – who for years had accompanied the difficult process of generating a moderate and serious alternative to the populist model – now seem to have capitulated to Milei’s populism.

The turbulent construction of the Juntos por el Cambio coalition itself involved agreements, disagreements, internal competitions, legislative collaboration, among other challenges, and even further down that path, it was able to survive the failure of Macri’s government and the return of Kirchnerism. 

Yet now, during the first and decisive steps of a new government, that moderate electorate, with republican convictions, aware that abrupt and/or unconsulted changes cannot last, seemed to have abandoned an important part of its own identity and its expectations to aspire to a political construction in keeping with the depth of the country’s problems. 

As if all those projections and years of effort, although plagued with mistakes, had evaporated overnight, and now the only thing now available for Argentina is the uncertain and poorly designed proposals put forward by Milei. 

As if the only way out of the deplorable status quo to which Kirchnerism’s populist ‘grieta' led us was to establish the extremist populism of the market.

Many feel that the anti-democratic impulses of Milei and its collaborators must be accepted due to the fear of the void, or else because “the general path is correct,” or at least because it is different from the previous one. 

What has happened with the values of this electorate?

If we are to understand politics, it is never convenient to believe that people vote wrongly or are simply wrong. It is better to look for the signs that can help us find the traceability of a given situation. 

In politics, the main responsibility falls on the specific players – that is, the actions of leaders. In that direction, in order to understand the defection of many of these former inflexible democrats, firstly, the disappointment with Macri’s administration must be considered, as well as the very commented and excessive confrontation over the Juntos por el Cambio candidacies. 

In the face of successive warnings to the contrary, Patricia Bullrich, her campaign and her entourage turned a deaf ear and never hesitated to overstep the mark of internal confrontation to the fullest, without reflecting on its possible consequences. Horacio Rodríguez Larreta’s campaign naturally also contributed its own dose of intransigence to the lists and alliance policy of the coalition. 

That is a lesson that Juntos por el Cambio (or what is left of it) should learn from and capitalise on urgently.

Secondly, the degradation of what is democratically acceptable passed when the PRO party’s top leaders, Mauricio Macri and Patricia Bullrich, legitimised Milei (saying: “he has good ideas”) while seeking to deepen the rift with Kirchnerism to obtain some unrealistic electoral revenue, or else to weaken the potential internal adversary.

More importantly, and thirdly, there is a pivotal fact that has not been the subject of any major political reflection, which is the defection by Bullrich and her vice-presidential running-mate Luis Petri, just 48 hours after being defeated by Milei in the first round of last year’s election. 

I will not stop here to judge that act morally, or say how much or little they achieved with the transfer, or the political stature that the episode reveals about each one of them. What I am interested in is to reflect on the damage that may have been caused by impoverishing the republican values of the Juntos por el Cambio electorate.

The sudden subordination by Bullrich and Petri (and other PRO leaders) to Milei to stay in (or gain access to ) power may have had a direct effect in the degradation of the values they themselves (perhaps without even being aware of it) embody, for better or worse, for the electorate. 

The move was decisive: regardless of the dangers posed by Milei in terms of democracy and governability, as they themselves had argued during the campaign, “change” had to be prioritised before any other consideration. Republicanism, the weight of political experience, moderation, respect for others and for democratic procedures, dialogue, common sense, solid teams to manage, government plans prepared for years by first-rate experts… these, and all the other elements which placed Juntos por el Cambio light years ahead of La Libertad Avanza, stopped mattering in an instant. 

Of course, Argentina’s democratic capital is significant, and that has been witnessed on repeated occasions since 1983. Yet if those values are no longer important for the electorate, or if the social demand for them no longer carries the same force, then it will be very difficult for moderate leaders to have a chance in the future in Argentina, or even for them to wish to continue defending those values.

The democratic commitment of leading political players is key to the health and quality of democracy as a regime, and they are responsible for keeping those guiding principles alive. Yet it is also true that the players are politicians aspiring to represent public opinion and they struggle a lot to oppose it. 

In other words, the defence of democratic and republican values must be a two-way street, a shared responsibility between moderate leaders and the general population. The former must insist tirelessly on the advantages of democratic dialogue, and teach people that pushy reforms do not have any positive or lasting effects. The latter must not let themselves be seduced by the siren song of a change the departure of which is known, unlike its destination.

The trickery of populism, whether left-wing or right-wing, is that it seals both the call and the incentives to build a compromise that allows for the solidification of policies over time. If we continue this way, the vicious circle of the long Argentine history will once again govern, where the contents of public policy twist the arm of the values of civilised social cohabitation capturing democratic institutions and procedures. 

Milei won the Juntos por el Cambio presidential ticket cheaply, with two ministerial positions by decree and a few advisors. Yet the abandonment of the demand for republican procedures and forms in the electorate will probably come at a much greater cost to Argentine democracy.

 

* Martín D’Alessandro is a political scientist and a professor of political science at the University of Buenos Aires.

by Martín D’Alessandro*

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