Monday, April 22, 2024

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 23-03-2024 06:30

Another 100 days of solitude?

If Javier Milei insists on tragedy, he might kill Argentina’s democracy – or vice-versa. He does not need to.

Unlike the Buendía family in Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece, President Javier Milei was not cursed to spend 100 years of solitude – let alone his first 100 days in office. He has simply chosen to. If he continues that path, his destiny will be tragic – either as hero or villain.

Tragedies do not fit well with democracy. During his 100-plus days in charge, Milei declined to expand his political power base by seeking governing alliances. On the contrary, he chose to burn possible bridges with governors, Congress and opposition party leaders. He is only relying on the public’s support, as expressed by social media channels – likes and reposts, as the new format of audience ratings – and public opinion polls. The most recent polls show, on average, that the public is almost divided in half between those who support him and those who don’t.

If Milei insists on tragedy, he might kill Argentina’s democracy – or vice-versa. He does not need to. An ample part of the political establishment that he depicts as “the caste” is very willing to help him pass the reforms that he believes Argentina needs. A sign of that is that after the Senate voted 42 to 25 against the mega-reform decree he had issued in December, the lower house Chamber of Deputies – where numbers are tighter – has not hurried to debate it.

In the next 100 days, the President has an opportunity to exit his voluntary political confinement. Will he? While he is a loner by nature, this week he made the effort of overacting good vibes with his vice-president, Victoria Villarruel, following a major spat between them over the Senate’s vote. Since the final stage of last year’s campaign, Milei and Villarruel had grown increasingly distant. A vice-president in an extremely presidential system is a political accident waiting to happen, as recent Argentine history has shown. They set the perfect stage for the conspiracy-loving country to outline a perfect narrative: what if Milei cannot survive the very chaos he is creating, and the establishment agreed to install a more stable (and malleable?) figure instead?

Milei’s moves this week sought to unroot that talk. First, Villarruel declared in a video her commitment to Javier Milei was “unwavering.” Second, they stood together at a ceremony marking the anniversary of the 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. Third, Villarruel went the next day to Casa Rosada, from where she has been banished daily, to attend a Cabinet Chief and pose in friendly postures with Milei. 

The entire incident shows that the President may have realised there is only so much political loneliness he can take if he wants his heroic saga to progress. In Latin American democracies, nobody is impeachment-proof, let alone a leader with only 15 percent of the seats in Congress. 

On reaching the 100-day watermark, Milei recited the achievements of his government so far, such as “avoiding a hyperinflation, zero fiscal deficit and reducing inflation from 25 percent in December to 13 percent in February,” and noted that he had done it “despite (the resistance) from the political establishment.” But as his team sends to Congress the second, trimmed version of the so-called ‘Omnibus Law,’ he seems to have acknowledged that there is a limit to what he can accomplish in the coming quarter on his own. 

The fiscal surplus the government posted in February, the second monthly consecutive and putting the quarterly target with the IMF at hand, continues to rely heavily on both raising spending less than inflation (a.k.a. the “blender” or licuadora, with a massive impact on pensions) and sitting on some important payments like electricity bills, public works, and transfer to provinces. The consensus is that this method is not sustainable.

The confirmation that former president Mauricio Macri will be the head of the PRO centre-right party, in agreement and after an internal dispute with Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, provides Milei with an opportunity to establish some form of an alliance for his inexperienced La Libertad Avanza party with a seasoned, like-minded force that is willing to cooperate, at least in Congress. Macri and his staunchest followers see eye-to-eye with Milei on almost every aspect of the economic reform and the cultural warfare that the President proposes – including even the calculated revision of history that will spark another public spat tomorrow, on the anniversary of the March 24 coup that kickstarted Argentina’s last and most brutal military dictatorship in 1976. 

Until now, the financial markets seem to be giving Milei the thumbs up for the economic course he has established and buying his solo flight. But will it last? Investors in the real economy, those who cannot run away as quickly, are more cautious. In the medium term, the President needs the latter more than the former if his goal is not only to stabilise the economy but make it grow again. He would be wise not to take chances, and instead, take all the help he can get. 

* Marcelo J. García is a political analyst and Director for the Americas for the Horizon Engage risk consultancy firm.

Marcelo J. Garcia

Marcelo J. Garcia

Political analyst and Director for the Americas for the Horizon Engage political risk consultancy firm.


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