Today is the sixth anniversary of this newspaper (whose first edition was on this same date of September 2 in 2017) but more importantly in the big picture today also marks the formal start of the campaign for the general elections on October 22, allotting it exactly 50 days. Or perhaps not more importantly at all because nobody seems to be taking any notice of that formality with a flurry of campaign videos in the past week.
Yet the fact that the campaign does not formally commence until today serves to make Economy Minister Sergio Massa technically innocent of electioneering, even if last Sunday’s bag of polytricks to take the edge off his own devaluation was one of the grossest examples in recent times. Might it be that this technicality forced Massa’s hand into decreeing measures whose timing could be as questionable as their fiscally reckless contents – will any benefits accrue more in September than October when they could be obliterated by spiralling inflation? Unless, of course, that is the aim with widespread suspicions of a doomed government preferring a victory of the self-destructive one-man show of libertarian Javier Milei to the more solid Juntos por el Cambio team for a quicker return to power.
That Milei is a one-man show was confirmed by almost the only voting in the past week – the local elections in the Córdoba city of Río Tercero, the seventh largest in the province. Less interesting here was the re-election of Radical mayor Marcos Ferrer with almost half of the vote but rather the underwhelming libertarian performance – just 4.7 percent, entirely typical of that long string of almost 20 provincial elections all the way through to Milei’s shock PASO upset. Just a fortnight previously that same locality had given Milei 34.6 percent of their votes (well above his national average when running against the popular outgoing provincial governor Juan Schiaretti). This would seem to make H.L. Mencken’s barb of “Deep down he’s shallow” apply to Milei in a new sense. Is there any structure beneath the protest vote foam – is there any iceberg below the tip?
Nature abhors a vacuum and no less a person than Buenos Aires Province Security Minister Sergio Berni seemed to confirm opposition suspicions of Peronists filling the gaps via a quid pro quo of the Greater Buenos Aires mayoral barons giving Milei the names of his municipal council candidates in return for protecting libertarian ballots, also in Peronist self-interest as potentially squeezing Juntos por el Cambio out of October contention. Berni further described Milei as a latter-day disciple of Carlos Menem and seeing the likes of 1996-1999 economy minister Roque Fernández or Menem’s chief economic advisor Carlos Rodríguez in the libertarian ranks would seem to make that tag stick.
The Menem years are firmly identified with convertibility or dollar-peso parity, which gave Argentina eight of its 14 years of single-digit inflation in the past half-century (as Milei likes to remind people more often than most). Public enemy number one during pretty much all this election year, inflation has only been inflated by the post-PASO devaluation and this is perhaps where the focus of this campaign should start to settle – last month’s rejection of both major coalitions led to frequent comparisons with “begone with them all” 2001 but perhaps the hyperinflationary election year of 1989 should be the touchstone. Not only generals are always preparing to fight the last war, as Winston Churchill said – politicians often make the previous campaign their point of reference but the people have already delivered their anti-system message against politicians in last month’s PASO and may well be on the lookout for some solid answers to spiralling inflation this voting round.
Juntos por el Cambio presidential candidate Patricia Bullrich’s anointment of Carlos Melconian as her future economic czar would seem to confirm that focus. An intense economic debate with Milei is in the offing. The message is more than the medium in this case but both have their role – long-haired and moustachioed in earlier incarnations, Melconian potentially offers a similar combo of rock star image and unconventionally orthodox economics to Milei. But the contest will lie more in the content although the contrast might be more apparent than real – while Milei’s dollarisation turns more phased by the minute with up to three years required for completion, Melconian’s bi-monetary scheme might well arrive at the same destination faster if its peso half withers away. In the weeks to come the duel between one Armenian surname (Melconian) and a Milei fostered by another Armenian surname (Eurnekian) could be fascinating.
Fascinating but not decisive. So much could happen in the next seven weeks that October’s verdict is anybody’s guess. As this column was being concluded, the final data from the PASO primaries were coming through, also pointing to a three-way split but a triangle with subtle differences in its geometry. Far from fooling all of the people all of the time (impossible in Abraham Lincoln’s lexicon), last weekend’s package of wages bonuses, tax breaks etc. only needs to fool the most miniscule percentage to squeeze Massa into a November run-off but the implementation of these goodies was faltering as this column was being written – just another example of how electoral analysis is being written in sand. Apart from previewing next weekend’s Santa Fe provincial elections, next Saturday’s column will perform some detailed number-crunching on the final PASO data starting with an exact quantification of the electorate outside the five surviving presidential candidacies. For now, almost the only hard fact in this space is that today marks this newspaper’s sixth anniversary.
(This columnist would like to dedicate these lines to his granddaughter born on the same midweek day this column was written, only regretting that it could not be better)