At least on Sunday night, the momentum and the trend were more important than the total sums. Maybe for politics, which lives more off appearances than concrete actions, it is always that way. The surprising electoral result — with Sergio Massa, the economy minister of a country in which every macroeconomic indicator has gone bust, should finish on top, relegating Javier Milei to second place and definitely burying the aspirations of Patricia Bullrich and Juntos por el Cambio — demonstrates that.
Today Massa is the winner and it does not matter that Bullrich voters are surely more inclined to vote for the libertarian candidate. The prime objective, apparently impossible, has been achieved – namely, placing a candidate representing the failed government of Alberto Fernández and his vice-president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in a run-off between two coalitions disputing the voters of an opposition which supposedly already had the election won.
Just as with the PASO primary results, where the main doubt was supposed to be whether Bullrich would confirm her victory over Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, the winner has an unbeatable opportunity to position themselves for the following round. After the PASO, the figure of Milei hit completely unprecedented popularity peaks for a true outsider of Argentine politics without any party machine or territorial reach and essentially advised by his sister, a couple of followers and the clones of his late dog Conan. In relation to the digital ecosystem, the performance of Milei was — and remains — completely out of the ordinary and in those days the articles and posts about the libertarian economist displayed a behaviour more like show business than politics. In terms of Google searches, “el Peluca” absorbed more than two-thirds of the total volume in Argentina with an international projection, disputing the top spots even with Donald Trump in the days immediately after the election.
So powerful was the communicational capacity of Milei and his La Libertad Avanza coalition that it seemed impossible that they would not win the general elections, possibly in the first round. The same thing which was being said by most opinion polls, to which we again paid heed to form our expectations, despite the contradictions we know so well. A confident Milei and his team moved onto a new phase of the campaign where the focus seemed more on damage control than on what had been his trump card: virulent confrontation with (almost) everybody via the social networks and the media. Furthermore, they had to justify that they would guarantee governance and that dollarisation was not window-dressing. Straying away from their essence to become a “caste” themselves permitted them to retain their PASO primary electoral base and guarantee the runoff against their preferred rival, although the possibility of coming second was not contemplated.
As in football, a league match is very different from a cup tournament, much more so if the loser is eliminated. The November 19 run-off will confront the two candidates who best express the will of the people for a new replay of grieta chasm antagonisms, even if Massa considers the rift dead for electoral reasons. This is easier reading for Milei – apart from his hard core, he will seek to attract all the Juntos por el Cambio anti-Kirchnerites who see Massa as the purest expression of the Argentine failure which they attribute to Peronism, for all his efforts to hide it. Massa, in contrast, will appeal to his chameleon instincts to pick up a bit of everything, especially the Juntos por el Cambio doves and those who opted for Juan Schiaretti and Myriam Bregman. He knows that the gorila vote is absolutely lost to him and he further carries a high level of personal rejection, like the government which he represents. Keeping Alberto and Cristina in the hiding into which they have retreated seems a core part of the strategy.
If the PASO primaries demonstrated that “social networks kill party machines,” it would seem that in the general elections Massa managed to revalue the national structures of Peronism, apart from the advantages of controlling the state machinery. As a political force, Unión por la Patria grew by more than nine percent between the PASO primaries and the general elections, or some three million more votes. Milei stayed the same in percentage terms with his number of votes growing slightly due to greater turnout. And Juntos por el Cambio crumbled, losing more than four percent. In strategic terms, at least in hindsight, whatever Massa did (e.g. the ‘Plan Platita’ of electoral goodies, changing his communication strategy, etc.) worked, taking him into the run-off against expectations. In Milei’s case, the question is whether now is the moment to go on the attack or if it is convenient to continue being more diplomatic.
In both cases they will be fishing in other ponds in a political ecosystem of two coalitions which had already shown indisputable signs of being past its shelf life. One person leaving that more in evidence was Mauricio Macri, who will probably lead the “hawk revolution” in search of a major rapprochement to La Libertad Avanza, which prima facie will leave seducing the Radicals served up on a plate to Massa. How will Patricia, and Horacio, play that one out?
The political ecosystem has again surprised us with an unanticipated result obliging us to recalibrate expectations. The endless campaign is reaching its end.