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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 06-04-2024 06:24

Attitudinal shifts and the risks of upheaval

Milei’s “negative rhetoric,” sustained by his synthetic power, is useful in setting the agenda, but it doesn’t put food on the table.

Many times the most profound changes begin imperceptibly, with only very slight movements that become perceptible only retrospectively. 

These kinds of tectonic shifts are difficult to predict. A human predilection, our obsession with seeing the future has led us from soothsayers to technical analysts, elevating any of them with a higher guessing average to “superhuman” status. While we have some tools that allow us to better understand the possibilities of the near future, recent experience teaches us that the future is always unpredictable – in particular when it comes to politics in unstable countries like Argentina. And even more so if they are governed by an outsider who considers himself the first anarcho-capitalist president in history and apparently has regular tête-à-tête conversations with God through his dead dog Conan, like Javier Milei. 

It’s not that things haven’t been volatile under previous administrations, but Milei and his unorthodox style has added fuel to the fire of an already blazing socio-political ecosystem.

Since the wild-haired economist became a presidential contender, the issue of his capacity to govern led some detractors to believe he wouldn’t be able to complete his mandate. While this is part of the usual banter in Argentina and par for the course (Mauricio Macri became the first non-Peronist to complete a full term only in 2019), somehow with Milei it was different. Having gone from zero to hero in a short few years, Milei’s La Libertad Avanza coalition consists of a ragtag group of admirers with limited political experience, no territorial power, and absolute minorities in both chambers of Congress. Furthermore, and while politically incorrect to a certain extent, Milei was seen as unfit to govern for multiple reasons, from his explosive temper to his well-documented instability, to the point where the issue of his mental health was front and centre during the campaign. Given his emotional fragility, would he be able to handle the heat of the Presidency in a country as chaotic as Argentina?

Despite doing everything in his power to fan the flames of division, while at the same time putting into action one of the most aggressive austerity plans ever seen, Milei and his team seemed to be holding up pretty well. Opinion polls indicate he maintains elevated levels of popularity, making him the best-liked politician in the country, despite insipid growth of negative opinions. Figures suggest the social mood continues to mirror the results of last year’s run-off, in which Milei took 56 percent of the vote compared to Peronist contender Sergio Massa’s 44 percent. Counterintuitively, the Milei administration has suffered potent political defeats, including the collapse of his ‘omnibus’ bill, a suspension of his labour reform by the Judiciary, and is currently engaged in trench warfare with several provincial governors. Furthermore, he’s overseen an aggressive jump in inflation that has barely begun to recede, while salaries remain absolutely stagnant, resulting in a painful slide in purchasing power and a worrying rise in poverty and extreme poverty. Regardless of whether this is the correct path to order Argentina’s macroeconomic mess, the real-world effects of these policies, along with the political defeats, could have led to massive social unrest and huge popular uprisings, as we’ve seen in the past. Even during the early days of the Macri administration, where rather than engaging in “chainsaw” austerity, the then-president opted for a “gradualist” path, the streets were a pressure cooker. With Milei in the Casa Rosada, it seems as if things remain under control – for now. As explained in previous columns, the use of “synthetic power” has helped the president and his sector maintain popular support and therefore political capital, by which I mean a particular type of tribal leadership constructed via social media platforms that, when properly harnessed, is strong enough to win elections.

However, one of the shrewdest observers of the Argentine political ecosystem has now warned of the imminent risk of an “estallido,” which roughly translates into “upheaval” and is connotatively connected to the 2001 meltdown. Jaime Durán Barba, the Ecuadorean political advisor who was instrumental in getting Macri into the Casa Rosada, wrote in his weekly column in Perfil that social tolerance “is being displaced by the sensation that wages are falling, unemployment [is rising], and an avalanche of negative news. If the government doesn’t do something to revert this trend, an upheaval could occur.” 

Durán Barba rejects the notion that the opposition is looking to instrument a coup — as this publishing house was accused by the president on the X social media platform a few weeks ago, demonstrating his intolerance for criticism — and says it is rather confused and dishevelled in the face of the whole Milei phenomenon. Yet while the president’s disruptive style was fundamental during the campaign, allowing him to eat Juntos por el Cambio’s lunch and then take on an incumbent pan-Peronist front that had Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in its corner, it isn’t the parameter by which the population judges a sitting administration. Milei’s “negative rhetoric,” sustained by his synthetic power, is useful in setting the agenda by keeping the public entertained and his supporters gratified, but it doesn’t put food on the table. 

Durán Barba has sniffed out an attitudinal shift in the population despite headline poll figures indicating Milei remains popular. Some 70 percent of the population is dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, observes the political expert, and while they’ve given the administration time to tackle inflation, they are increasingly worried about making ends meet. The fruits of Milei’s epic plan may be visible near the horizon to believers, but the prospect of crossing the desert single-file behind the leader is becoming increasingly unappetising.

The “free advice” for the president from Durán Barba is that he needs to engineer the feeling that “something positive is happening now.” He suggests moving forward with some sort of agreement on common goals that “represents more than 90 percent of the electorate.” It sounds similar to Milei’s proposed ‘Pacto de 25 de Mayo,’ but it is difficult to imagine that a president as combative as he is will be able to seduce such a large portion of society – particularly after the way he’s treated his political opponents. In order to approach those levels of popular support he would need to convince lifetime Peronists to agree with him. But most important of all, he has to be committed to a strategy that implies negotiation and concession, something he’s proven incapable of doing up until now.

Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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