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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 27-04-2024 05:00

The first ‘real world’ punch for Javier Milei

The government’s response to the march in defence of the public university system was similar to their usual approach, but the impact wasn’t the same – the social agenda appears to have finally sided against Milei on a major issue.

Losing the support of the middle class and the youth could be a dangerous precedent for a politically weak president like Javier Milei. 

Up until now, Argentina’s head of state had maintained his political capital, despite suffering substantial defeats, such as the initial collapse of the so-called ‘Omnibus’ bill in Congress, though to a certain extent, he came out strengthened from that dispute. He fared even better in the face of street-blocking protests, with Security Minister Patricia Bullrich effectively limiting the power of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) umbrella union grouping and leftist social movements’ power through an ‘anti-picket’ protocol. Picking fights with his preferred enemies – whether they be journalists or politicians – allowed the ultra-libertarian to use his “caste-gun,” painting the scarlet letter on his opponents and relying on his digital communications machine to come out victorious in the eyes of the public. 

But that’s not what happened during this week’s multitudinous march in defence of the public university system, which saw the masses take the streets peacefully in order to protest an apparent libertarian ‘chainsaw’ attack against the beloved UBA (Universidad de Buenos Aires) and its sister institutions scattered federally throughout the provinces. Regardless of Manuel Adorni’s attempts at defending the president’s position (the presidential spokesman was forced to deny that the administration is looking to shut down state universities), and even though several of the toxic members of “the caste” joined the crowds (giving the libertarian digital information war machine fodder), the crowds made their point loud and clear. Milei and La Libertad Avanza have clearly suffered a political defeat that has actually hit them where it hurts: their electorate.

It’s still too early to tell whether this march marks a turning point of sorts in the President’s relationship with the public. As happened in previous confrontations with its political adversaries, the president sought to discredit the participants via ad hominem attacks blurted out over social media, retweeting nasty comments and memes posted by his paid network of influencers, before sending out Adorni try to defend the government’s position in a daily press conference. This is all part of a well-crafted strategy of political communications, supposedly led by political strategist Santiago Caputo — the self proclaimed “political commissar” of the government — that operates within the sphere of “synthetic power,” as previously analysed in this column. Conceptually it refers to a new way in which certain social actors build substantial political capital using the digital information ecosystem, which is structurally different to the way power structures are traditionally built and maintained. 

During the month-long showdown over the Omnibus bill, Milei and his La Libertad Avanza party managed to set the stage for an ambush of the political class, creating the illusion of a negotiation and ultimately pulling the bill and digitally lynching the legislators who weren’t aligned with them. In tandem, the left-wing social movements first and the CGT later mobilised to the Plaza de Mayo in downtown Buenos Aires, only to be used as guinea pigs by the Security Ministry to test out Bullrich’s brand-new protocol. As protesters timidly marched and then quickly dispersed, Milei, his sister Karina and their gang celebrated another political victory, claiming they had “tamed” the wild “lefties.”

The government’s response to the march in defence of the public university system was similar to their usual approach, but the impact wasn’t the same – the social agenda appears to have finally sided against Milei on a major issue. This time around, the response to the chainsaw austerity plan and its impact on state universities was overwhelming. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets throughout the country, where there was a clear grassroots movement (mainly composed of students and the middle class with a peaceful intention to express their distaste at the president’s general negative disposition toward UBA and public education in general). The specific arguments used by La Libertad Avanza weren’t all that relevant to the crowd, who saw in Milei’s “anarcho-capitalist” libertarianism an intention to eliminate public schooling to make way for the private sector (if indeed there is a market there). 

While there were political groups involved in the organisation of Tuesday’s demonstration, they were mainly clinging on to a popular response to the latest edition of the president’s culture wars. For whatever reason, though a majority of the population sides with Milei in his battle against politically correct and culturally progressive institutions and trends, the attacks against public education hit a social nerve that sparked a popular response. Historically, Argentines have been proud of the history of the free and universal education system in the country, starting with Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, considered one of the founding fathers of the nation. Even if a large portion of the population agrees that the educational system has fallen victim to the same forces of decrepitude as the rest of society, UBA and the university system are still a source of pride, and they do well in the international rankings.

According to Ecuadorean political strategist Jaime Durán Barba (who happens to have been one of Santiago Caputo’s mentors), the Milei administration is making a big mistake in picking a fight with the country’s youth, who by definition are rebellious and historically have been at the forefront of moments of social revolution and change. Speaking at an exclusive livestream event for Perfil’s digital subscribers, he noted that the communications strategy pursued by the government is mistaken, saying that its intention is persecution, as opposed to relying on a message of hope. It was that orientation that allowed Milei’s campaign to reach people of all ages and social classes during the campaign. But if they don’t change their strategy, according to Durán Barba, the risk of social upheaval in this difficult economic context will rise.

The use of synthetic power has allowed this President to force the implosion of the Juntos por el Cambio coalition, which seemingly had the election in the bag at one point last year. Former Buenos Aires City mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta didn’t even make it past the PASO primary, while Patricia Bullrich was ultimately absorbed into the government. It also allowed Milei and his four English mastiffs to beat a sitting Peronist administration, banded in the Unión por la Patria coalition and with the support of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Sergio Massa in control of the budget, in the race for the Casa Rosada. 

There are little doubts as to the real-world effects of synthetic power. Milei remains deeply popular and continues to wield vast power. Yet, he should be wary of hubris, as his power is not eternal – even if sometimes it can feel like it.

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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