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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 18-11-2023 06:55

Already in unchartered territory

The emergence of Javier Milei and his libertarian coalition, La Libertad Avanza, has happened in tandem with a fatal erosion of the bonds holding Argentina’s hegemonic coalitions together.

In a seemingly endless political campaign, the final showdown between Sergio Massa and Javier Milei promises to be a nail-biter that could stretch beyond Sunday night if things are too close. Yet, regardless of ideological preference or sympathies, the Argentine socio-political and economic landscape that will emerge will mark a sharp break with the immediate past. There have been several tectonic shifts that severely modified the lay of the land, and our analytical maps are completely outdated. Not only will it take time for the dust to settle and a new status quo to become apparent, if indeed one becomes apparent, the unpredictability of what is to come is such that it is difficult to project into the future. The final culprit here is the ultra-libertarian economist with wild hair – Milei – but he’s the last stockade of a series of situations that have bubbled beneath the surface and are no longer controllable. It’s not clear whether things will blow up or if some sort of managed stasis will be possible, but what is evident is that we are somewhere completely new. And have been for some time now, even if we fully come to realise this next week.

The emergence of Milei and his libertarian coalition, La Libertad Avanza, happened in tandem with a fatal erosion of the bonds holding Argentina’s hegemonic coalitions together. The pan-Peronist Frente de Todos front, rebranded Unión por la Patria for this electoral bout, had entered a deep state of crisis when Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the factotum of power, withdrew her blessing for President Alberto Fernández and his gang. Cristina had played a brilliant electoral hand by bringing Alberto onboard to win the 2019 election, along with Massa and his Renewal Front, to construct a coalition with her former arch-enemies. With the heavy burden of Mauricio Macri’s imploded economy, the dysfunctional Fernández-Fernández administration crumbled in the face of adversity. In their defence, somewhat, they were put up against a global pandemic that shook the foundations of the global ecosystem. Yet Alberto and Cristina’s administration was the consequence of Fernández de Kirchner’s failure to retain power in 2015, when Macri leveraged society’s disillusionment with Kirchnerism to pull a surprise victory in the run-off. The electoral coalition that allowed them to retake the Casa Rosada failed from the start as a tough economic scenario was made worse by the inoperability of the government given constant infighting and a continued deterioration of expectations. The fracture between hardcore followers of Fernández de Kirchner (politically organised through La Cámpora by the deficient Máximo Kirchner), and more moderate and pragmatic Peronists ultimately materialised in a series of scathing public letters CFK published to show her discontent with Alberto.

Kirchnerism, while still the single most popular and powerful sector within the Peronist field, is on the wane. Though many have tried to bury the vice-president (some too literally), she retains her power but has accepted to recede from the spotlight, while Máximo and La Cámpora haven’t been able to build an attractive evolution of the movement. Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof, for years associated with La Cámpora, has emerged victorious in a silent battle with Máximo and is now one of the new leaders of the space. The other is Massa, who’s performed the political equivalent of the greatest illusion in history by making it into the run-off despite belonging to the Fernández-Fernández administration as its economy minister amid a disastrous situation that includes triple-digit inflation and a substantial growth in poverty rates. The Peronists also had one of their worst presidential elections to date with a less than 37 percent of the vote on Sergio’s watch, and despite clawing back some congressional seats look a lot weaker than in the recent past, having lost their quorum in the Senate. The common enemy of losing power united the Peronists into an electoral coalition supporting Massa, whose political and economic worldview is diametrically opposed to Fernández de Kirchner. Despite its historic plasticity, the Peronists will have to dig deep to find common ground.

The story with Milei is a bit more complex given much of his growth and the reason he’s the one in the run-off is that he managed to eat Juntos por el Cambio for lunch. The opposition coalition came into the electoral cycle too hot, after Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta had essentially thrown his hat in the ring two years earlier. He had become a primus inter pares within the coalition, seemingly having displaced a Macri disgraced somewhat after the end of his Presidency but still extremely relevant within the opposition. The midterm legislative victory of 2021 was Rodríguez Larreta’s, and it suggested a more moderate and encompassing disposition that invited non-Kirchnerites to join a national unity government that would count with the support of some 70 percent of the people and the political class, including Massa. It was all a chimaera: Rodríguez Larreta was quickly dragged into an internal battle between hawks and doves that had Patricia Bullrich as the contender and Macri in her corner. They perceived the penetration of Milei’s brand of far-right anti-Kirchnerism within certain segments of Juntos por el Cambio’s electorate, and doubled down. While Rodríguez Larreta weaved alliances with governors, members of the Unión Cívica Radical and invited Peronists to join, Bullrich took a page from the right-wing populist’s handbook and destroyed him in the PASO primaries, exposing the rift within the opposition coalition while allowing for the ultra-libertarian and the economy minister to push them out of the run-off.

What is Juntos por el Cambio now that Milei has proven a more popular alternative to Kirchnerism? At the same time, what is the opposition coalition now that they boast 10 provincial governors and hold a substantial portion of seats in a clearly divided Congress? Milei and Bullrich have signed a risky deal with Milei, alienating a substantial portion of the coalition, yet there appear to be more than enough reasons to try and stay together, even though it’s not clear whether the hawks and the doves will be able to cohabitate (nature teaches us not). At the same time, both sides will be tempted by Massa and Milei, regardless of the outcome of the election.

In two years, Milei has achieved the impossible by creating a new political party and forcing his way into a run-off. They’ve won 38 national deputies and seven Senate seats. Furthermore, Milei has seduced millions of young voters with disruptive rhetoric against the “political caste” that espouses extreme government cost-cutting and calls into question the very existence of the national currency. Along with him, a group of far-right dictatorship denialists are pushing an agenda that questions the foundations of the Argentine democratic pact established in 1983. Taking a page from the international far-right populist playbook of the Bolsonaros and Trumps, they have normalised belief in conspiracy theories distributed on social media and aggressive and authoritarian forms of communication. This ragtag group will attract a substantial portion of the public’s political attention in years to come. For many, this group of extremists is the expression of fringe movements and should either be combated politically or shoved under the carpet, but they’ve managed to represent a third of the electorate that is tired with the status quo. While voters haven’t shown they agree with the Milei-Villaruel platform in its entirety, surveys have indicated they are looking for new actors to represent them after decades of stagnation.

For the first time since the 2001-2002 crisis, Argentina will find itself with a fragmented power structure and no clear hegemony. From the Kirchnerite period to bi-coalitionism, there seemed to be a mechanism that organised political supply and thus attracted societal demands. That premise no longer holds as Milei has broken the system and his third of the electorate has emerged into the scene, angry at the caste but hopeful for new leadership to carry it out of this mess. At the same time, the coalitions are fatigued past the point of no return, generating clear breaks and once again dispersing the political offering and further complicating the electorate’s decision-making process. We’re already in uncharted territory.

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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