Elections in Argentina: the 'normalization' of Milei, put to the test

A walk from the working-class neighborhood of La Boca to the brand new skyscrapers of Puerto Madero crosses the complex landscape of the most uncertain presidential elections in recent history in Argentina.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
18 November 2023 Saturday 03:21
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Elections in Argentina: the 'normalization' of Milei, put to the test

A walk from the working-class neighborhood of La Boca to the brand new skyscrapers of Puerto Madero crosses the complex landscape of the most uncertain presidential elections in recent history in Argentina. Javier Milei, an ultra candidate with extremist ideas and deranged gestures, is already moderating his incendiary rhetoric after allying himself with the center right, with Mauricio Macri, president between 2015 and 2019.

His rival, the current Minister of Economy, Sergio Massa, takes advantage of the sudden loss of Milei's rebel factor to regain his support in youth sectors and neighborhoods like La Boca. “Milei hates us, the club belongs to the people: vote for Massa,” say two banners hanging in front of the legendary La Bombonera stadium of Boca Juniors, where Maradona wins by a landslide over Massa and Milei for families buying souvenirs in a theme park. tango, barbecue and soccer

Milei has lost friends in the La Boca neighborhood where Massa won with almost 40% of the votes in the first round. The libertarian candidate's plan to privatize football clubs – an idea of ​​Macri, who was president of Boca Juniors before becoming head of state – no one likes here.

It is another indication that the anarcho-capitalism of the libertarian candidate – with plans to privatize healthcare and education, throw thousands of public officials onto the streets and eliminate subsidies – is not the alternative that many Argentines are looking for.

But, for many, the status quo – embodied in Massa, whose great political skills are dwarfed by a 140% inflation rate – is even worse. “Milei is Pandora's box,” summarizes Julio César, a retired engineer from the state energy company. “But Massa has already failed.”

Hence, the uncertainty about the result. The polls do not help to clear the electoral panorama. They failed to foresee Milei's meteoric rise in the primaries, nor Massa's surprising comeback in last month's first round of elections.

After a turn in the polls in favor of Milei, the latest poll published on Saturday by the consulting firm Circuitos, predicts a technical tie, with Massa's advantage of five tenths. Given this narrow margin, the decision of Milei's team to follow in the footsteps of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro and denounce possible electoral fraud based on a supposedly biased distribution of the ballots is understandable.

Even if Massa wins, Peronism – reborn at the beginning of the century embodied in the evocatively glamorous couple, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner – seems dead. He had a second chance after Mauricio Macri's defeat in 2019 amid another wave of inflation. But the situation was aggravated by the pandemic, everything has gotten worse under the government of Alberto Fernández and Cristina's vice presidency.

Without foreign currency to pay for its imports, Argentina is on the verge of insolvency. The rejection of the Government is palpable in each neighborhood, even historically working-class districts like La Boca. Maradona's declaration of support – “I was, I am and I will always be a Peronist” – in October 2020, three weeks before his death, was perhaps the last triumph of Kirchnerism.

It is striking that Massa does everything possible not to see himself identified with his own government. Aware that Peronism is already perceived as intrinsically corrupt – a lawfare campaign against Cristina Fernández has not helped – the progressive coalition candidate defends the creation of a national government “without looking at the card.”

Massa's campaign focuses on the fear that Milei arouses. Argentina needs a president with “temperance, mental balance, capacity and contact with reality, said the candidate minister in the debate last Sunday. He warned about the danger of the libertarian's plan to dollarize the economy and reduce public spending by 15% of GDP. He reminded viewers that Milei had called the Pope a “son of a bitch” who “goes around preaching communism.” Milei responded that Massa represents “the most thieving government in the world.”

The truth is that Milei is no longer the rebel he was. Her new asset is the support of Macri and the center-right candidate, Patricia Bullrich, who was defeated in the first round. The long-awaited anti-Kirchnerist front already exists. “We wanted to lead the change but it was not enough,” Macri tweeted on Thursday asking Milei to vote. “It's not what we wanted, but it's what we have to do.”

The attempt to normalize Milei was internationalized with the support of a dozen former foreign leaders, including the former Spanish head of government Mariano Rajoy and the former Mexican presidents Felipe Calderón and Vicente Fox. It is another red line crossed by the centrist conservatism that hopes to have incorporated to the “libertarian punk”, to the mainstream.

In Puerto Madero, next to La Boca on the shore of the Río de la Plata, the new alliance of the establishment and the insurgents takes shape. Here is the Bullmarket broker from cryptocurrency and dollarization guru and Milei ally, Ramiro Marra. But here too, in the tallest skyscrapers, are the headquarters of BBVA, the World Trade Center and the large companies of the old breed.

Assimilating rebellion is an old strategy of power, although it previously served to disarm the left. But it could be a bear hug for Milei, whose popularity was based not only on the rejection of Peronism but also on the failures of Macrism. “Macri doubled inflation and the external debt as well,” explained economist Matías Vernego in an interview. That is not forgotten in three years

In La Boca, perhaps Macri's true strategy is glimpsed. A week after the presidential elections, the elections for the presidency of Boca Juniors are held, and Macri once again presents himself as a candidate for vice presidency. The former president needs the support of Milei's activist base to regain control of Boca. The plan was summarized by one of the always expert taxi drivers in Buenos Aires. The rebel with the chainsaw is already “a puppet of Macri.”