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

Milei the destroyer and fear of the unexplainable

The fear that Milei and his weird entourage of cosplayers, social media influencers, extreme-right “dictatorship deniers” and C-class corrupt political leeches generates has to do with a breakdown in the conditions of governability.

There’s something off-putting about the Argentine intelligentsia’s response to Javier Milei’s surprise victory in the PASO primaries. With the ultra-libertarian economist dominating the scene, the initial paralysis caused by the shock result appears to have been followed by a sense of inevitability and impending doom, in some cases widespread and in others just cultural, expecting the economic situation to potentially improve. The country’s major decision-makers, known as the “círculo rojo,” are still scratching their heads, trying to figure out what went wrong with their favoured candidate, Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, or the anticipated underdog Patricia Bullrich, a former security minister with close ties to former president Mauricio Macri. Few had thrown some chips at Economy Minister Sergio Massa, who with a “face of steel” (pardon the Spanglish, in Argentine slang it’s “cara dura”) continues to campaign as the nation’s saviour, despite rampant inflation and the constant threat of a default at the hands of the International Monetary Fund and the “three plagues” (the pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the drought). Weirdly enough, he’s still in the game. As is Patricia.

The fear that Milei and his weird entourage of cosplayers, social media influencers, extreme-right “dictatorship deniers” and C-class corrupt political leeches generates has to do with a breakdown in the conditions of governability in a country that is in a fragile macroeconomic situation coupled with a decades-long decadence in democratic institutionalism. Their panic and trepidation are not ill-founded. First and foremost, it isn’t clear that the ultra-liberal economist with the crazy hair is fit to undergo the pressures of the presidency. As explained last week in this column, one of Milei’s own fears is that his medical history is leaked to the press, which could confirm a preconceived notion that he is clinically insane. Furthermore, he has a father-son relationship with his dogs, which are clones of his beloved Conan, all of which he can directly communicate with (allegedly) and considers to be his advisors in matters of macroeconomics, politics and foreign policy. He’s been able to speak directly to God (apparently), who has given him the mission of becoming Argentina’s president, along with some of the leading (long dead) economists that ascribe to theories close to the Austrian school. Those who have dealt with him have spoken about his explosive temper, and until very recently he lived a very lonely and traumatic life. All of these circumstances are explained in detail in Noticias journalist Juan Luis González’s unauthorised biography El loco (“The Crazy One”), which is currently the only published in-depth investigation into Milei and his exponential rise to the top of the political food chain.

Beyond his mental sanity, it’s clear that Milei and his coalition, La Libertad Avanza, lack the organisational structure to populate the state administration. In great part this has to do with the novelty of the political phenomenon, while at the same time it is a consequence of having filled his coalition with several of the lowliest characters of the Argentine political ecosystem, despite his campaign being built on the concept of eradicating the “caste.” This goes hand-in-hand with an ambitious economic and political agenda that includes several complex articulations, such as his idea of dollarising the economy, which requires an almost impossible super-majority in Congress. Not only does Milei have no experience in public or private administration, he won’t count on political muscle in either chamber of Congress. His idea of governing through plebiscite is incongruous, given Argentina’s Constitution.

Thus, those paralysed with fear at the prospect of a Javier Milei administration believe a mentally unstable president lacking in a professionally organised structure to administer the state without political support in Congress will generate an institutional crisis that will result in a social eruption and his expulsion from office. This, of course, would be a very bad scenario for Argentina. Especially in the face of a normalisation of the climatic conditions that would allow the agro-exporting sector to recover lost ground, while the continued exploitation of the Vaca Muerta shale basin would lead to an energy surplus, meaning a substantial portion of the chronic dollar deficit could begin to be reversed. Are other scenarios possible?

Logic suggests there are. Despite Milei’s shock performance in the PASO primaries, the three leading political forces were all within percentage points of each other. Despite what appear to be improving numbers for the libertarian, the possibility of a run-off is by no means off the table. It’s not looking too good for Massa and Bullrich right now though; the economy minister has massive levels of public rejection and has to own the economic situation, while his own coalition appears to be playing against him, starting with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Yet, they count on a national political structure, provincial governors, and with control of the national government, an important territorial advantage. In Bullrich’s case, the primary with Rodríguez Larreta appears to have zapped the soul out from Juntos por el Cambio. She hasn’t been able to define her candidacy for the general election, or decide whether she will challenge Milei for the right-wing vote or move to the centre to try and absorb moderates. Macri, her latest mentor, is playing on both sides by continuing to flirt with Milei while internal divisions within the opposition coalition, particularly with the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR), could further weaken her position. What seemed like a sure win for Juntos por el Cambio has now become a struggle to make it into the run-off. If they could recover a little bit of their old mystique, maybe they can make it through?

Now, if Milei were to win, is it guaranteed the country will go haywire? He’s already been forced to tone down some of his more extreme positions, including the idea of immediate dollarisation where he’s noted that the process could last two years. He’s also begun to add some more mainstream voices with some political capital to his inner circle including Guillermo Francos, former Banco Provincia president under the governorship of Daniel Scioli, and Corporación América-AA2000 executive Nicolás Posse. A hypothetical ‘President Milei’ could also count on the support of certain ideological allies, especially those closest to Macri and the hardliners in his right-wing PRO party, particularly when it comes to certain policies that are shared by both spaces including a labour reform and a zero-deficit budget. Being forced to look for the support of provincial governors, he may have to negotiate and further tone down his platform. It’s possible that Argentina’s political institutions could “force” Milei toward a diluted, pro-governability version of his supposed in-depth plan that is nothing more than general bullet points for the most part. If he’s flip-flopped over issues including dollarisation and political involvement in the very near past, why should we expect him to remain a fundamentalist forever? Perhaps the “caste” is already getting to him.

It’s difficult to understand the Milei phenomenon for a major portion of the “círculo rojo” because he is part of a paradigm-breaking force tied to the exhaustion of the current economic-democratic matrix of society. The breakdown in society’s trust in political institutions has been well documented for years, while the capacity for this current version of capitalism to generate widespread wealth ended decades ago. Discontent has mounted while society has been armed with smartphones that have connected the entire population to each other through the internet of algorithms, where unfiltered information travels at fibre-optic speed. Milei is a child of this “new” era where a new organisational paradigm hasn’t yet taken over, meaning the analytical tools to understand reality haven’t been developed yet. Trying to make predictions with some level of certainty will have the same results as opinion polls in the face of every election here and around the world.

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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