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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 23-09-2023 05:11

Demystifying Javier Milei

Milei is a mystical creature with an impenetrable halo above his head at the moment. His opponents appear weak and disoriented. Yet there is still ample room for surprises.

After several weeks trying to come out of a state of shock, Argentina’s intelligentsia is finally getting over their “Milei hangover” and trying to get on with it. Even if they don’t really know what the “it” really is – it’s not like they would’ve had an idea under the expected scenario where Juntos por el Cambio appeared as the clear front-runner. 

In Argentina, every circumstance is an excuse for the dollar-peso exchange rate to go crazy. With the ultra-libertarian economist clearly in the lead, the expectation that he will be the next occupant of the Casa Rosada is beginning to crystallise, giving way to an anti-Milei offensive on both sides of the aisle. Economy Minister Sergio Massa, presidential candidate for the ruling Unión por la Patria coalition, has gone “full Peronist” by announcing a new version of the populist 'Plan Platita’ (which roughly translates to “putting money in people’s pockets'') through a series of redistributionist policies while constantly attacking the Javier Milei-Victoria Villarruel ticket for planning to “take away your hard-earned rights.” On Patricia Bullrich’s side, the former security minister during the Mauricio Macri administration brought onboard economist Carlos Melconian to confront the wild-haired libertarian, while the official party line is that Juntos por el Cambio is the only political force that can bring order to the country and “defeat the Kirchnerites,” insisting that Milei “has no plan.”

If we are to believe polling numbers (which we should not if recent history has a say in it) the situation has been fairly stable since society digested the results of the PASO primaries. According to data put together by political scientist Federico Tiberti, an average of available opinion polls put Milei shy of 35 percent, Massa just below 30 percent, and Bullrich somewhere around 25 percent. Of course, the big change here is that Juntos por el Cambio has potentially dropped into third place and hasn’t been able to make a dent on Unión por la Patria’s lead. As should be expected, the number of opinion polls that have been released to the public since the primaries has slowed to a trickle, in some level influenced by the colossal failure of the whole polling ecosystem to pick up on the Milei phenomenon. A look at Google search volume also shows a consistent situation on the digital front, with the ultra-libertarian absorbing some 70 percent of search intent, compared to around 20 percent for the economy Minister and some 10 percent for the former head of the PRO party.

The game was always about making it to the run-off, but the players have changed. Originally, it was about who would face Juntos por el Cambio, now it’s whether La Libertad Avanza, Milei’s coalition, can be stopped in the general election and dragged into a run-off. Massa, who appears poised to overtake Bullrich, is expected to suffer a beat down in a run-off scenario given his personally elevated rejection rates, the government’s poor economic performance, and the fact that some two-thirds of the electorate voted against the incumbents and in favour of pro-market, right-leaning candidates. And Bullrich, can she beat Milei? Juntos por el Cambio appears to be suffering the “second brand” syndrome by which La Libertad Avanza has stolen their thunder, becoming a more attractive alternative to anti-Kirchnerite, business-friendly reformism.

Through the concept of the political “caste,” Milei and his ragtag group of libertarians, dictatorship negationists, reconverted third-level political operators and other eclectics have captured the imagination of the people. Negating the argument that tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars are needed to run a presidential campaign, La Libertad Avanza is a digital phenomenon. Leveraging Milei’s presence in traditional mass media outlets, snippets and clips of his irate attacks on fellow TV panellists and “lefties” have gone viral on social media, particularly YouTube and TikTok, creating an ideologised core group of voters to whom Milei’s ends — eliminating the caste — justify the means, whatever they may be. The concept of the “caste” generates a visceral reaction in them to the point where nothing else matters but trampling on woke socialists in order to “drain the swamp,” as they say in the United States. Little does it matter that Milei and his crew are personally making economic gains on his political popularity, that his organisation is rife with members of the “caste,” or that he’s voted along with the Peronists on certain key bills in Congress, including the recent raising of the income-tax floor that was rejected outright by Juntos por el Cambio. Milei has become a religion that is quickly expanding as the faithful find comfort in hating the system and jumping on the bandwagon.

The election is far from settled, but the inert response of La Libertad Avanza’s political opponents help to build the feeling of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The libertarians are clearly in the lead but don’t appear to have the muscle to take the election in the first round. Thus, Bullrich and Massa are looking to the presidential debates as an opportunity to claw back a few percentage points and make it into the next round. It’s said that debates do little to sway the public opinion and are actually more effective in generating loyalty, but that has never stopped the political class from seeing them as one of the headline events of any electoral cycle. While the intention appears to be to provoke Milei into a state of rage, it is the libertarian who seems better trained in televised discussions where he generally makes his rivals look stupid. This time around though, his ideas will be closely inspected and he’ll have to deal with the attacks not only from Massa and Bullrich, but from all four opponents who’ve identified him as the candidate to beat. Massa will have to defend his tenure at the Economy Ministry, which counter-intuitively is one of the arguments his campaign has been using to justify that the man from Tigre is fit to govern. In Bullrich’s case she’ll have to deal with certain oratory difficulties that have emerged as of late along with the defence of the failed Macri administration that she formed a part of.

While the election is around the corner, it’s still a long way out in political terms. Things have changed, though, and the political paradigms have been broken. Milei is a mystical creature with an impenetrable halo above his head at the moment. His opponents appear weak and disoriented. Yet, in the same way as Milei’s performance in the PASO primaries was unexpected, and similar to how Macri won back some eight percentage points between the PASO and the general election in 2019, there is ample room for surprises this time around.

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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