Into the final stretch of the campaign, Sergio Massa and Javier Milei are locked in a head-to-head race for the Presidency. It has been an extremely long presidential campaign, even in a country that has become accustomed to a seemingly constant state of political conflict. To a certain extent, the acknowledgement that polarisation generated gridlock, which ultimately allowed politicians to procrastinate rather than attempt to solve society’s problems, appeared to become one of the main issues going into this electoral cycle. Yet, moderation was quickly thrown out the window as the emergence of ultra-libertarian economist Javier Milei modified the decades-long hegemony between a pan-Peronist coalition controlled in some form by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and an anti-Kirchnerite opposition that banded behind Mauricio Macri, but that included political groups with antagonistic ideologies, such as his PRO party and the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR). With Milei going from freak outsider to frontrunner after the PASO primaries, the political field of play has fractured even further, exposing a rift within opposition coalition Juntos por el Cambio, which suffered a humbling electoral defeat that accelerated an internal process of fragmentation. Across the aisle, Unión por la Patria has allowed the economy Minister to absorb the Peronist vote while trying to hide the fact that he’s one of the founding members of the governing coalition that also includes Fernández de Kirchner and President Alberto Fernández. Not only have they been carefully hidden in plain sight, in order to avoid “scaring” coveted moderate voters, they are also a representation of an Argentina that is no longer real, with Kirchnerism slowly becoming a minority expression within Peronism. Regardless of the outcome, the “grieta” – Argentina’s unique brand of political polarisation – remains as relevant as ever, having evolved with the consolidation of the far-right, much like in much of the “Western World” (to use an archaic term).
The rise and fall of the “moderation party” is tied to the expectation that Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta would win the presidential election. An experienced politician with four terms of hands-on experience running the nation’s capital (two terms as mayor), he sought to create a super-majority that traversed societal and political boundaries placing negotiation and moderation as its guiding factor, as opposed to the constant conflict that defined the “Kirchnerismo vs. anti-Kirchnerismo” dialectic that dominated the previous 20 years or so of Argentine political life. He developed regional alliances with governors in order to try and guarantee legislative capacity and was well-known to have a good relationship with Massa. Rodríguez Larreta was so good at doing things the way politicians know how to do things that he appears to have forgotten the tricks he learned from Ecuadorean political advisor Jaime Durán Barba, who reminded him that in Macri’s victorious campaign in 2015 he never posted pictures with political leaders, espoused a rhetoric of optimism and used social media to communicate with younger generations. In retrospect, they probably needed Marcos Peña.
Milei, a postmodern phenomenon who built his popularity on social media, pulled Juntos por el Cambio to the right, allowing Patricia Bullrich to crush Rodríguez Larreta, only to destabilise the whole coalition. The PRO party destroyed its two “presidenciables” and has seemingly expelled the Radicals from the coalition they helped co-found. From the ashes we see the rise of Macri, who has forged a high-risk alliance with the ultra-libertarian. Was this rupture premeditated by the former president? It is clear he had a stand-off with the City mayor, ultimately defeating him through Bullrich, and now, with his former security minister out of the equation, he has looked to regain centrality within the opposition space alongside Milei. Macri has explained on several occasions that he shares the libertarian’s ideology, to the point where he caused perceived harm to Bullrich’s own presidential ambitions by complimenting her opponent during the dispute for the anti-Kirchnerite vote. For Macri’s gambit to work, not only does Milei have to win the election, they also have to retain a substantial portion of Juntos por el Cambio’s political power base, including a solid legislative position and 10 governorships across the country, many of them under Radical control.
In the uncertain world of Argentine political preferences, Milei seems to be recovering lost ground after a surprise defeat in the general election. If we are to believe any of the opinion polls that have come out recently (which we should read only with scepticism) the ultra-libertarian holds a thin lead over the economy minister, in most cases within the margin of error. But there seems to be a clear reversal of the post-election sentiment that seemed to put Massa already in the Casa Rosada. A similar situation to the post-PASO feeling that Milei had already won. Milei has moderated his rhetoric while trying to demonstrate that his La Libertad Avanza coalition has a professional team in place, which is ready to take office. The alliance with Macri and part of Juntos por el Cambio gives them increased territorial capacity to oversee the electoral process while legitimising his team with a certain part of the electorate. And the UCR hasn’t gone for a clean break, yet, meaning some of those voters could be swayed that way.
Interestingly, Milei’s move from anti-system candidate toward a more traditional stance hasn’t hurt him electorally. He has inked a series of deals with traditional members of the “political caste,” starting with Macri and Bullrich, while he has toned down his speech. Irreverent members of his coalition have been told to keep their silence, with the exception of vice-presidential candidate Victoria Villaruel, who is showing that a dictatorship denialist can still be electorally attractive in some quarters. It remains to be seen how the final debate plays out.
In Massa’s corner, the attempts to seduce the electorate will continue all the way to the election. Already the fact that he’s made it to the run-off should be seen as an incredible feat of politicking given triple-digit inflation, the black market premium and a host of prohibitive macroeconomic indicators that the economy minister is supposedly responsible for. Furthermore, he’s managed to come out unscathed from the “bandit affair” that saw Martín Insaurralde fall from grace for his luxury vacation with supposed model Sofia Clerici in Marbella. A second scandal is at hand with the investigation into phone-hacking against members of the Supreme Court blowing the lid off a Kirchnerite ecosystem of illegal espionage that looks extremely bad days before an election. Intelligence reports put together by former police officer and supposed “inorganic” associate of the AFI spy agency Ariel Zanchetta were delivered to deputy Rodolfo Tailhade and Fabían ‘Conu’ Rodríguez, a member of the La Cámpora political youth organisation currently working with the AFIP tax agency. The former responds to Fernández de Kirchner, the latter to Máximo Kirchner. Néstor Kirchner was very fond of his underground information networks too. It runs in the family.
Massa’s main objective must be to prove that he’s “not like them.” If he can tell the moderate voter that he’s always been against Kirchnerism, despite ample evidence to the contrary, then he has a chance to demonstrate that he’s a better alternative to the dangerous political experiment of picking an anti-system candidate. It is the same alchemy that he will have to execute to tell his potential voter that he’s not responsible for the current economic disaster despite being in charge of the Economy Ministry and essentially the Executive since last year. And ultimately, that he won’t be complicit with Cristina’s judicial situation. What he ultimately does isn’t all that relevant, just what he can project during the final stretch of the campaign. Again, the debate could be fundamental in drilling this final message.
For a moment, it felt like Argentina was crawling out of “la grieta.”