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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 15-04-2023 10:01

A social flare-up, a triple draw and the rise of Milei

Javier Milei very well could be the single most voted-for candidate in the national PASOs scheduled for August 13.

A complex scenario has been brewing which makes the presidential race completely unpredictable, just like the near future of the country. It is probably best expressed in a growing sense of dissatisfaction stretching across social classes and geographies, not just in Argentina but around the globe. There is a burgeoning sensation that no matter who takes charge next year, it will be more of the same decrepitude and that somehow, someone needs to put an end to this. It’s not just galloping inflation and a near terminal loss of purchasing-power, but a consistent sense of insecurity, especially in the poorer neighbourhoods making up the Conurbano or ring of middle-and-lower-class municipalities that encircle the City of Buenos Aires, a phenomenon repeated in every major city in the country. It reached a fever pitch when a group of bus drivers protesting the slaying of one of their colleagues who was murdered in cold blood while on the job during a petty robbery brutally beat up Buenos Aires Province Security Minister Sergio Berni. The whole of the political class starting with the Peronist coalition leading the nation and the province were suddenly put under a cold bath of reality. If it happened to Berni, it can happen to any of them as they “walk the streets” during their routine and superficial campaign rounds. The disconnect between the political class and the rest of society is as self-inflicted as the near century-long process of economic destruction which seems so hard to break. The response is the rise of anti-system candidates looking to torch the presidential palace, a formula which has led to attempts on the democratic process both in the United States and Brazil.

A recent survey by the Analogías political consultancy firm revealed a triple tie between the Frente de Todos, opposition coalition Juntos por el Cambio and Javier Milei’s libertarians. With a two-percent margin of error, the pan-Peronist front took 25.2 percent of the vote, the coalition founded by Mauricio Macri stood at 24.5 percent, and the eccentric economist at 20.7 percent. While it is too early to expect conclusive numbers — 21.1 percent of the sample population remained undecided — the figures are telling and preoccupying for both leading coalitions as they illustrate the consolidation of the right wing. Their margin is so narrow that the first round of the vote could find the three contenders within percentage points of each other, indicating a fragmentation of the electorate which could lead to surprise outcomes. Not too long ago it seemed obvious that Juntos, with Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, would handily defeat the Frente de Todos, which was struggling to find a competitive candidate and would lean towards Economy Minister Sergio Massa. The final victory was expected in the run-off, while Milei’s libertarians were poised to deliver a promising election giving them some legislative say next year. The scenario has changed, making it unclear what the podium looks like and who will make it to the run-off.

In our weird electoral calendar, the PASO primaries work as an ordering mechanism, forcing all of the interested parties to compete with each other both within their own political spaces and with the rest. This means that Milei very well could be the single most voted-for candidate in the national PASOs scheduled for August 13, allowing him to take a victory lap in the form of a ravenous and menacing anti-system speech which will serve as his best platform ahead of the upcoming final match. He is currently the preferred candidate amongst the youth (16 to 29 year olds) and among men. The internal battle between Rodríguez Larreta and PRO party chief Patricia Bullrich could only further feed his numbers. Since leaving office, former president Mauricio Macri has hardened his stance, throwing his support behind Bullrich who, like Milei, is a fervent anti-Peronist who despises Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. While Rodríguez Larreta’s campaign has appealed to moderation and a national consensus, Bullrich has consistently hardened her campaign in order to appeal to Milei’s voters. It is impossible to know whether the electorate was looking to be drawn to right-wing positions or if the emergence of Milei and successive copycat strategy led by several candidates has helped that group grow. If, when the primaries come around, Rodríguez Larreta is victorious, will he be able to attract Bullrich’s voters or will they be drawn toward Milei? According to another recent poll (Inteligencia Analítica), the former security minister absorbed all of Macri’s potential votes, going from a near technical draw with Rodríguez Larreta to outstripping him by some 30 percentage points in the primaries. This situation is probably exacerbated by the recent internal bickering which saw most Pro party leaders lash out at the Mayor after he modified the electoral rules in favour of Senator Martín Lousteau, the Unión Cívica Radical candidate to succeed him facing off with Jorge Macri, the former president’s cousin.

The disillusionment of the majority of people with the political system is one of the pillars of Milei’s ascent. Across Western democracies, the system has failed to generate social ascension and greater distribution of welfare over the past several decades, unlike what happened after World War II. The current state of financialised and globalised capitalism has helped to fortify incumbents’ moats. As the welfare state runs out of steam, calls for revolution have given rise to a ‘New Right’ in the style of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro where Milei feels very comfortable.

Things are looking shaky in Buenos Aires Province, where some 40 percent of the population is concentrated. The Conurbano is a traditional Peronist bastion, and also one of the country’s poorest, most dangerous and densely populated regions. That’s where Kirchnerism looks to make its stand this time around. Provincial Governor Axel Kicillof was expected to handily take the election, but his polling figures have fallen aggressively in the past few months. Another study put together by Isonomía found that 59.9 percent of the sample population disapproved of Kicillof’s tenure, an 8.6 percent slide since January. He still leads in voting intention with 29.3 percent, ahead of Juntos’ Diego Santilli who stood at 18.1 percent — adding all of the coalition’s candidates the number rises to 24.8 percent. Interestingly, despite the fact that Milei doesn’t have a candidate in the province just yet, his hypothetical choice took 16.6 percent, while 12.1 percent of respondents remained undecided. Crime remains extremely high in the Province, while the economic situation is dire. A vast majority, 87 percent, indicated they are worse off than a year ago, while only 27.2 percent expect their situation to improve next year.

That’s the region where a group of protesters violently beat a Security minister known for his toughness and “proximity with the people.” The beating was broadcast live on every major television station, amplified by digital outlets and social media to reach millions. Known as the “mother of all battles,” it is also the province where the election could be settled. A continued deterioration of the macroeconomic situation will most certainly hit particularly hard at Conurbano citizens, sparking more violent reactions and making their electoral choices increasingly murky for analysts. It isn’t common that a public official, but especially one like Berni, gets beaten up by a group of protesters. It’s also uncommon to live with triple-digit inflation month after month. Several important economists from across the political spectrum agree we are not on the brink of a 2001-like implosion, but that doesn’t mean we are immune to a flare-up. For the past several years Argentina has escaped the social tensions that led to widespread crises in several neighbouring countries. We could be running out of luck.

Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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