Everything is relative but the relative can also be relative – along the lines of George Orwell’s “more equal than others,” some things are more relative than others, with the results of last Sunday’s PASO primaries a case in point.
Relative both qualitatively and quantitatively. Qualitatively because the libertarian starburst Javier Milei won everything and nothing last Sunday. Are we in the presence of a new foundational milestone in this country’s history on a par with 1810, 1853, 1930 or 1945? Or were people registering a cathartic protest vote in a qualifying heat defining almost nothing, only to approach the real race itself in October more selectively? We have seen mavericks blaze up and fade before (Elisa ‘Lilita’ Carrió, banished to Parlasur last Sunday, springs to mind as the best of the opposition with her 23 percent in 2007 and the worst in 2011 with 1.8 percent).
The above percentages are already taking us into the number-crunching, which could hardly be more relative – a three-way split with Milei on 30.04 percent, Juntos por el Cambio on 28.27 percent and Unión por la Patria with 27.27 percent. Furthermore, these are results with 97.39 percent of the 104,577 voting-booths counted, which do Milei a favour by keeping him just above 30 percent – the first results of the night with 61 percent counted gave him 32.7 percent and his vote kept falling since huge Buenos Aires Province with its complex eight-tier voting was the last to report so a full vote would surely have shown him just below 30 percent. Numerically insignificant but symbolically important if Milei is demoted to 20-something like his rivals.
As things now stand, the three-way split also extends to the three traditional pillars of Argentine governance with the outsider Milei potentially in the Casa Rosada, the Macri surname in City Hall and a K surname re-elected in Buenos Aires Province – a perfect recipe for gridlock with any exit from crisis remote on the horizon. Yet part of last Sunday’s shock was to bring the supremacy of those traditional pillars into question because while we are constantly told that Greater Buenos Aires is the “mother of all battles” deciding every election, Milei’s win was hinterland payback, winning 16 of the 23 provinces, all inland – the mirror image of his 2021 midterm electoral advent when his success was virtually restricted to 17 percent in this city (which he barely equalled last Sunday while his mayoral candidate Ramiro Marra could not even win half his party’s national average with under 13 percent).
Milei’s triumph becomes even more relative looking beyond the comparison of the leading trio to the more global statistics. Although widely viewed as a glorified nationwide opinion poll, the true purpose of the PASO primaries is to weed out marginal candidacies via its 1.5-percent threshold to reduce political fragmentation. Only five of the 27 presidential candidates now proceed to the October general elections – Milei, Patricia Bullrich for the mainstream opposition coalition Juntos por el Cambio (with just under 17 percent), Economy Minister Sergio Massa (21.4 percent) for the ruling coalition, outgoing Córdoba conservative Peronist Governor Juan Schiaretti (3.83 percent) for Hacemos por Nuestro País and FIT-U leftist deputy Myriam Bregman (1.86 percent). This quintet accounts for less than three-quarters of the valid votes cast (74.11 percent) but if we add the blank ballots and those who did not vote (turnout was 69 percent) totalling over a third of the electorate, even Milei with over seven million votes is struggling to claim 20 percent of the 35,394,425 eligible to vote.
Whatever the numbers, Milei’s triumph was still a shock which absolutely nobody saw coming, this column less than most. Closely following the 18 provincial elections thus far this year, this column asked, for example, how Milei could possibly aspire to the presidency when the libertarian cause barely topped 3,000 votes provincially on May 21 in Misiones with an electorate of almost a million – last Sunday Milei swept 43 percent of the Misiones vote. Ignoring Milei almost entirely, this column a fortnight ago defined the key to the door to the presidency this year as to which of the only two previous competitive primaries would dictate the outcome of the tussle between Bullrich and outgoing Buenos AiresCity Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta for the Juntos por el Cambio presidential nomination – the 1988 Peronist primary (when charisma beat the machine in the person of Carlos Menem) or the 1999 Alliance primary (when the machine beat charisma to nominate Radical Fernando de la Rúa)? The answer to that question was emphatically 1988 with Bullrich’s clear victory in a generally bad night for tired structures against technicolour individualism but that answer also becomes extremely relative in the general scheme of things.
When such a totally unexpected result confounding pollsters and pundits alike comes along, the natural reaction of most analysts is to go scrambling in the search for a black swan. Without much success – does the cruel fate of Lanús schoolgirl Morena Domínguez convincingly explain why half Salta should vote for Milei? No black swan explaining Milei comes into sight or rather Milei IS the black swan – we need to dig deeper.
Why did over seven million people vote for Milei, sometimes against their own economic self-interest? Thus one might logically think that the growing numbers of the poverty-stricken would be more drawn to the far left than the extreme right (even if the former might have come closer to double digits without Unión por la Patria’s fabrication of the Juan Grabois candidacy to prevent its left wing from straying). Milei also won in Tierra del Fuego with over 35 percent of the vote when the island’s industrial promotion regime consisting of little more than assembly plants of costly imports with tax breaks of over a billion dollars is an artificial state creation at all odds with the libertarian creed.
Many reasons have been volunteered but Occam’s razor here – the most crudely simple are the likeliest. His benchmark proposal of dollarisation might seem ludicrous in a country acutely short of greenbacks but is extremely potent – have many fallen in love with the idea of earning in dollars rather than worthless pesos without thinking it through? The champion of freedom is also free from any baggage from the failures of a decade of economic stagnation carried by the incumbent Frente de Todos administration and preceded by Cambiemos (with the current noms de guerre of Unión por la Patria and Juntos por el Cambio fooling nobody). Last but not least, the coronavirus pandemic with its eight months of lockdown should not be underestimated as a factor feeding libertarian backlash. If Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump could win, why not Milei, one might also ask?
Such simple explanations probably work better than the more complex but it is also possible to be too simplistic and dismiss Milei as a protest vote for the anti-system candidate who shouts the loudest (plenty of competition there from other presidential hopefuls). The only candidate to present a comprehensive platform (of some 147 points which might warrant further scrutiny in future columns), his rhetoric often presented more substance than his rivals – in an interview published in this newspaper earlier in the year Patricia Bullrich described how she owed her support to her clear ideas and her courage in standing by them without explaining exactly what those clear ideas were in the course of three pages. Not that clarity necessarily justifies Milei’s ideas – there is a broad distinction between Occam’s razor and a chain-saw – but this column is already running out of space to further debate them.
This column would not be complete without mention of the one provincial election as opposed to primary last Sunday – the Kirchner cradle of Santa Cruz with the end of 40 years of Peronism, even if by a margin of only 4,300 votes and even if governor-elect Claudio Vidal (like Neuquén’s Rolando Figueroa and Claudio Poggi of San Luis) is a repentant member of the old regime rather than a complete change.
Anyway the primaries are now over and the term “hopeful” now has no further use with only candidates. Perhaps there are also no more hopefuls in the broader sense either after a week of market mayhem and price jumps driven by devaluation.