Tomorrow’s debate leaves next weekend’s run-off still open to last-minute shifts. Neither of the two debates preceding the first round (respectively won by Economy Minister Sergio Massa and the already eliminated Patricia Bullrich regaining ground more than finishing on top) were much of a game-changer but tomorrow is a different ball game – far more open and direct than the rigidly structured presentations of five candidates with a correspondingly greater margin of error.
In other words, Javier Milei’s election to lose against a failed government, all depending on how the libertarian lion roars. Opinion polls point to only around one voter out of every seven as being likely to be swayed with all the others committed to either Massa or Milei, hostile to both or indifferent but that could so easily be a decisive percentage in a tight race. Many readers will have no recollection of the pioneering 1960 presidential debate in the United States two generations ago but that election was by no means the slam dunk for a charismatic JFK which it might seem in retrospect – the Republicans were then comfortably riding two “I like Ike” terms with no need to make America great again in those years. Milei will thus need to watch his step if he is not to relive Richard Nixon’s debate disaster although at the same time it must be said that this year he has gained more ground from taking one foot out of his mouth to put the other in than rival politicians treading carefully.
Today’s column is the last to make a forecast (next weekend the veda electoral curfew will already be in force) so after consistently tipping Patricia Bullrich as this country’s next president since last April, this journalist feels that the best service he can render is to predict a Milei win.
Playing with fire, one might think, after the Bullrich debacle, but short of men in white coats being needed to remove Milei in tomorrow’s debate, there are various pointers in that direction, not least a fistful of opinion polls. Last Saturday’s column leaning in favour of Massa as having both the dice loaded in his favour and the momentum from the pleasant surprise of a clear first-round win was written just before the appearance of those polls – it was also premised on a united Peronism inexorably triumphing over a divided opposition, forgetting that in a run-off there is only one opposition candidate (albeit far from unanimously supported).
Two of the three most important opinion polls giving Milei the lead come from sources generally favouring Massa (including his own brother-in-law) and could thus be suspected of being insurance against government complacency after the first-round win but the third (Brazil’s Atlas Intel, Perfil’s favourite pollster which forecast a four-point advantage for Massa last month) is now giving Milei the four-point edge for a 52-48 percent win. These findings are not as illogical as Massa’s strong win last month might suggest – if the electorate is broadly divided into three-thirds, two of them populist and two of them opposition, Milei is the only option combining both.
But perhaps the crux of the matter is that for rank-and-file voters the decision is far more primitively simple than for politicians and pundits split down the middle over a “Dracula versus Frankenstein” run-off choice. Among the Juntos por el Cambio leadership, critics of the reckless decision of ex-president Mauricio Macri and Bullrich to back Milei seem to outnumber the converts but it is the other way around among their voters. Whether hawks or doves, most of these voters simply dislike this Kirchnerite government with its triple-digit annual inflation, oblivious of Milei’s horrors. While over two-thirds of Patricia Bullrich voters will be obediently voting for La Libertad Avanza, so will fully half of Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta’s supporters. The maths of this is 17 of the 24 percent voting for Bullrich last month switching to Milei with only seven percent having misgivings or tempted by Massa’s “national unity” appeals – Bullrich thus delivers her 17 percent of the PASO primary (if not exactly the same voters) to add to the libertarian 30 percent with Córdoba voters quite likely sufficing to take Milei over the top.
If everybody assumed Milei to be the next president after his PASO primary upset with Massa massively favoured following last month’s turnaround, the wheel could be turning full circle again. Against the very cogent question of how anybody could possibly vote for Milei is the telling question of where Massa is going to find more votes after throwing everything but the kitchen sink into clawing last month’s success, thus adding 3.2 million votes from PASO – but still needing a couple of million more next weekend. Among the three eliminated presidential candidates, by far his best bet was Myriam Bregman representing the hard left, which has decided that it can no more vote for a lackey of the International Monetary Fund than for a fascist. Outgoing Córdoba Governor Juan Schiaretti with 1.8 million votes to his name last month is nominally a Peronist but has drawn a red line over persecution of the Supreme Court along with illegal espionage (a huge buzz in some media last week but not otherwise a game-changer in this columnist’s opinion). The Juntos por el Cambio vote was dissected in the previous paragraph.
Yet Massa’s biggest doubts might well lie in his own ranks. Last month party machines were fully activated as lying in the self-interest of Peronist mayors nationwide plus the Buenos Aires provincial government (three voters out of every eight) – will the same motivation and funding be there next weekend? And can Massa fully trust Kirchnerism – or those lower provincial and municipal levels of Peronism who might feel more comfortable with a legislatively vulnerable Milei than with the movement’s new strongman? Such factors might well be more potent than the absence of those opulent enough to afford the long weekend being stubbornly maintained by the government to the exasperation of the opposition.
Does all the above make Massa a lost cause? No way. Comparing the “Massa train fare” of 56.23 pesos with the 1,100 pesos estimated for a Milei or Bullrich presidency in the final week before the first round was a masterstroke which should not be underestimated as a factor mobilising those three-plus million votes last month and such scare campaigns may just only be starting – let us see what the minister has up his sleeve in the upcoming week. Massa also chooses to see the adverse opinion polls cited above as reflecting petrol shortages which have since been largely overcome – much depends on whether that situation is seen as circumstantial (the result of refinery overhauls, import delays and other temporary hitches) or a structural defect of populist economics with relative prices so out of whack that capped retail prices end up overtaking the wholesale.
The final countdown for next weekend’s showdown is now starting but it is also relative – the provincial governments have all been elected earlier this year, the future Congress was defined last month so what we have is two men competing to be top of the pile rather than the heap itself (almost “two bald men fighting over a comb, as Jorge Luis Borges defined the 1982 South Atlantic war). In this context Milei is widely rejected as a quasi-fascist bogeyman with a raft of scary ideas including downplaying past state terrorism but might he not be more frightening because the anarcho-capitalist will be just as short on control as he is on self-control – should we fear the weakness or the strength? But before any further speculation we still have a debate and an election ahead of us.