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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 22-06-2024 05:52

Turning-point or anarcho-capitalist illusion?

The outsider – who by definition was politically weak – is proving to be more resilient than his more traditional peers. Milei’s emergence in Argentina’s political ecosystem already marks a turning-point.

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re we at a turning-point for the Javier Milei Presidency? The agonising legislative process tied to the approval of his ‘Ley de Bases’ bill in the Senate definitely brings the Milei administration one step closer to having what it believes are the basic bureaucratic tools it needs in order to dismantle the state in its current form, leaving it at the minimal expression, in line with the president’s anarcho-capitalist philosophy. 

It’s the second legislative win for La Libertad Avanza this year, six months into the Milei Presidency, and after a gruelling procession through the gauntlet that is the lower house Chamber of Deputies, a scene that was revisited at the Senate level, its passage is close. Now, with an empowered Guillermo Francos — who took over from Cabinet chief Nicolás Posse, absorbing his Interior Ministry into his new portfolio at the same time — the government is playing hardball by trying to overrule some of the changes made at the Senate level, particularly the new income tax brackets given its axiomatic necessity for a budget surplus. 

The expectation is that beyond specific negotiations, Milei will get his reform package through, even if it’s a watered-down version of the official ‘omnibus bill’ that was sliced into two projects. With some 300 articles in total between the ‘Ley de Bases’ bill and its accompanying fiscal package, the ultra-libertarian leader appears ahead of his recent predecessors in getting anything from Congress, with both Alberto Fernández and Mauricio Macri only managing a handful of bills in their first six months in power. At least from this point of view, the outsider – who by definition was politically weak – is proving to be more resilient than his more traditional peers, demonstrating once again that for whatever reason, Milei’s emergence in Argentina’s political ecosystem already marks a turning-point for the country.

There are signs that suggest that slowly, but surely, the political system is finding a new order that orbits around Milei. In Congress, which the libertarians openly insult and degrade, La Libertad Avanza has managed to build circumstantial majorities in order to get its massive reform package through the hoops by absorbing the PRO party, the centrists huddled around Miguel Ángel Pichetto’s Hacemos Coalición Federal, and part of the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR). As predicted during the electoral campaign, Juntos por el Cambio broke up into several pieces, first between hawks and doves and then between those in favour of a full integration with Milei and those looking to “retain identity.” The PRO party is the battleground through which Patricia Bullrich formally entered the government and she is looking to drag the rest in with her, while Mauricio Macri has regained the party’s presidency to try and resist full absorption of the political structure he painstakingly built. 

Pichetto, always a maverick, has grouped centrists and moderates into a new space, while the UCR also broke down internally. Led by Rodrigo de Loredo in the Chamber of Deputies, it formed part of the “oposición dialoguista” (“dialogue-prone opposition”) that supports bills sent by the Casa Rosada, while in the Senate, party chair Martín Lousteau tried to break out by going into full opposition mode. It initially worked, giving the former Economy minister a certain political centrality, yet he ultimately found himself isolated from the rest of his caucus and voting alongside Kirchnerites, giving the government an easy political win. It was a similar state of affairs to when he agreed to hike Senate salaries after having openly criticised the Executive for giving themselves a raise.

The Peronists have managed to maintain a united front to a certain extent, with Unión por la Patria generally voting against Milei’s proposed legislation in both chambers of Congress. Despite suffering a few deserters along the way, Peronist legislators have emerged as a firm, but insufficient (given their incapacity to block him) political line of defence against Milei’s policies. There was a circumstantial majority to vote in a new formula for retirement and pension payments and the pan-Peronist front was forced to follow the UCR, Hacemos, and Elisa ‘Lilita’ Carrió’s Coalición Cívica. 

Yet, there is internal tension within the Justicialist Party. Provincial governors have entered into negotiations with Francos while a sector close to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner remains firmly opposed to anything that remotely smells of Milei. Unión por la Patria hasn’t suffered a major schism yet, but their resistance will be continuously tested in the coming months. Already we are seeing a flare-up between Máximo Kirchner and Axel Kicillof, the governor of Buenos Aires Province, that is apparently fair game for Mother Cristina. Let the hunger games begin.

A fractured opposition and the absence of a clear leader have allowed Milei to dominate the political scene. Only a few weeks ago the Casa Rosada was under heavy fire given the continued failure of the ‘Ley de Bases’ bill at the congressional level, and a series of scandals at Milei’s marquee Human Capital Ministry, run by the President’s personal friend Sandra Pettovello. The head of state fired his close friend Possé, losing a key connection with the United States’ political bureaucracy in the process, and was forced to personally defend Pettovello, proving that he is essentially the only player within his anarcho-capitalist coalition with political capital to burn. 

The high rate of exits and sackings from top-level posts is alarming. There are constant rumours of infighting, nearly always tied to angering presidential chief-of-staff Karina Milei, the President’s sister. Next on the chopping block, the rumour mills indicates, is Foreign Minister Diana Mondino, who was left off the guestlist for the all-important trip to the G7 summit, at which Milei shared the stage with Pope Francis, Joe Biden, and even antagonist Lula Inacio Da Silva. Federico Sturzenegger, continuously proposed for a Ministry-level top job, is being resisted by Economy Minister Luis ‘Toto’ Caputo, once again forcing the President to publicly try to settle the score. To be fair, it’s probably difficult to live in constant fear of Karina, advisor Santiago Caputo, and Conan.

Whether we are facing a micro-turning-point will only be corroborated by what happens in the near future. Every time that Milei achieves a small political victory, the suggestion is that he will build up momentum, yet his propensity for conflict leads to gridlock. His international travels, excessive by any means, seem to be designed to take him out of the trench warfare that is day-to-day politics in Argentina, while positioning him as a global leader of the New Right, at the service of whoever professes the anti-Left, anti-woke aesthetic and needs a helping hand. Abroad, Milei counts on ample recognition, allowing him to pick fights against the adversaries of his allies in Spain, the United States, Brazil, and elsewhere, without seeing his domestic popularity eroded.

However, the battleground that emerged in the streets around Congress during the Senate’s vote over the ‘Ley de Bases’ reform sounds an alarm bell. While it clearly wasn’t a spontaneous protest, the level of violence on both sides was reminiscent of the 2017 pitched street battle between the Macri administration and the left in the context of the provisional law. Some even suggested it felt like the 2001 crisis. Weirdly enough, society seemed to digest it as if nothing had happened, with a discussion regarding who is to blame largely occurring within journalistic and political circles. Most, it seems, have already moved on,.

But amid all this, the government is far from out of the woods: Argentina’s economic situation remains dire, the level of polarisation is extreme, and the verbal violence of the digital ecosystem could tilt the scales – if Milei’s promised “V-shape” recovery doesn’t begin to materialise.

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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