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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 27-05-2023 06:45

A no-win election

The fact remains that the last three people to run Argentina have all opted to sit this election out. The only question here is what lies behind their “fear to tread.”

“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” wrote Alexander Pope over 300 years ago (a fitting number, as it happens, since today’s newspaper is our 300th edition). “Angel” is probably not the word most people would use to describe either President Alberto Fernández, Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner or ex-president Mauricio Macri (even if the middle name of the former) but the fact remains that the last three people to run Argentina – and indeed the only surviving ones apart from Isabel Perón and the caretaker Eduardo Duhalde if we omit the stopgaps lasting less than a week – have all opted to sit this one out.

The only question here is what lies behind their “fear to tread” – the obvious answer is that they are afraid of losing, given their dire opinion poll ratings, but might they be just as fearful of winning the right to govern a country rapidly becoming ungovernable? In Anglo-Saxon countries, the concept of “a good election to lose” is a relatively established phrase within the political vocabulary but until now the thought of losing has been alien to local politicians – this could start to change.

And the fools rushing in? Not a noun which sticks to libertarian economist Javier Milei except that he seems to feel obliged to play the fool in order to grab votes. But he is the only candidate to whom the verb applies as the only one on the move. Between one wing hawkish and the other dove, the Juntos por el Cambio aircraft remains grounded. Whether fools or not, most government prospects (Interior Minister Eduardo “Wado” de Pedro, Ambassador to Brazil and 2015 standard-bearer Daniel Scioli and Cabinet Chief Agustín Rossi) are not acquiring critical mass with any speed to rush in anywhere – while Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof is far closer to that critical mass, he has thus far shown no rush to move out of the comfort zone of his current post although we might start seeing a “Draft Axel” drive replacing the “Draft Cristina” clamour should the latter prove untenable.

Instead the closest thing we have to a fool rushing in might just be Economy Minister Sergio Massa. Dubbing this sly ultra-pragmatic wheeler-dealer a fool could seem way off-target but his nine months as economic czar are making Macri’s tag of “ventajita” truer than the previous president probably realised himself at the time. At first sight that insult would best be rendered in English as “petty opportunist” but even absolving Massa of any opportunism, the cap still fits in the form of the more literal translation of “minor advantage.” With his umpteenth variation of the “Under-20 dollar” this improvised economist has only underlined the insanity of imagining that the best solution for a split exchange rate is to multiply it – the whole concept of the “soy dollar” (buying greenbacks cheap, only to sell them dear) obtains the “petty advantage” of an immediate reserve injection at the cost of accelerating inflation from the pesos printed. The currency and the Massa candidacy are thus being devalued at the same time.

While the two main coalitions flounder, most pundits increasingly see “the Milei phenomenon” as the game-changer. This columnist begs to differ. When asked by a journalist for his opinion on the “Milei phenomenon,” the Uruguayan ex-president José ‘Pepe’ Mujica replied: “The only phenomenon is the attention you [media] give him.” Despite some impressive opinion polls, the actual voting performance of the libertarian cause has thus far been underwhelming. In the only election last Sunday (the Córdoba township of Corral de Bustos, where the Radicals ousted the Peronist incumbents), the Milei candidate polled 3.5 percent – in Misiones they barely topped 3,000 in a province with over 900,000 voters while in Tierra del Fuego blank ballots drew three times as many protest voters as La Libertad Avanza.

It might then be argued that Corral de Bustos has an electorate of 8,700 while only 11.93 percent of the country has voted in the eight provincial elections so far, quite apart from provincial voting being an entirely different kettle of fish from general elections – moreover, no libertarian ballot until now has been topped by the charismatic figure of Milei. Yet that absence could be extended to by far the biggest electoral district, namely Buenos Aires Province, now that there is increasing talk of separating the provincial election date from the national in order to avoid the contagion of a totally discredited central government. The Milei factor might indeed be the strongest argument against such a strategy because Kicillof’s re-election chances hinge on topping an opposition fragmented by the libertarian challenge (to which the fabricated Fernando Burlando candidacy has been added), so much so that even 30 percent could be a winning vote in a province without a run-off. Yet the record of provincial elections so far show that such calculations could backfire badly without the accompaniment of the Milei presidential ticket available only on October 22.

Space is running out for any in-depth analysis of the jumble within Juntos por el Cambio, about which plenty has in any case been written elsewhere – indeed too much, in this columnist’s opinion, because a solution will perforce be found by midyear, entirely altering the scenario. So much so that this columnist will stand by his forecast of the election results being closer to those of Paraguay on the last day of last month than most people imagine, even allowing for the huge differences between the two countries (not least the ruling party victory there) – namely 42.7 percent for the centre-right, 27.5 percent for the centre-left and 22.9 percent for their Milei equivalent. But then when it comes to electoral forecasts, fools also rush in where angels fear to tread. 

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Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.

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