The 'normalization' of Milei, tested

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

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
18 November 2023 Saturday 10:35
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The 'normalization' of Milei, tested

A walk from the working-class neighborhood of La Boca to the brand-new skyscrapers of Puerto Madero traverses the complex landscape of the most uncertain presidential election in Argentina's recent history. Javier Milei, an ultra candidate with extremist ideas and upheavals, has already moderated his incendiary rhetoric after allying himself with the centre-right, with Mauricio Macri, president between 2015 and 2019.

His rival, the current Minister of Economy, Sergio Massa, is taking advantage of the sudden loss of Milei's rebel factor to regain his support in youth sectors and neighborhoods such as La Boca. "Milei hates us, the club belongs to the people: vote for Massa", proclaim two banners hanging in front of the legendary La Bombonera de Boca Juniors, where Maradona beats Massa and Milei by thrashing for families buying souvenirs in a theme park in tango, asado and football.

Milei has lost friends in the neighborhood of La Boca, where Massa won with almost 40% of the votes in the first round. The libertarian candidate's plan to privatize football clubs - the idea of ​​Macri, former president of Boca Juniors before becoming head of state - does not please anyone.

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

But, for many, the status quo – embodied in Massa, with great political gifts that are stunted in view of an inflation rate of 140% – is even worse. "Milei is Pandora's box", summarizes Julio César, a retired engineer from the state energy company. "But Massa already failed".

Hence the uncertainty about the result. Polls do not help clarify the electoral landscape. They failed to foresee Milei's meteoric rise in the primaries, nor Massa's surprising comeback in the first round of last month's election.

After a turn in the polls in favor of Milei, the latest survey published on Saturday by the consultancy Circuitos predicts a technical tie, with an advantage for Massa 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 an allegedly biased distribution of ballots is understandable.

Even if Massa wins, Peronism – reborn at the beginning of the century embodied in the evocative glamor couple, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner – seems dead. He got a second chance after the 2019 defeat of Mauricio Macri amid another wave of inflation. But the occasion was aggravated by the pandemic, everything has gone from bad to worse under the government of Alberto Fernández and the vice-presidency of Cristina.

Without foreign currency to pay for its imports, Argentina is on the verge of insolvency. The rejection of the Government can be felt in every neighborhood, even in historically working-class districts such as La Boca. Maradona's declaration of support - "I was, am and always will be a Peronist" - in October 2020, three weeks before he died, was perhaps the last triumph of Kirchnerism.

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

Massa's campaign focuses on the fear 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 plan to dollarize the economy and reduce public spending by 15% of GDP. He reminded viewers that Milei had described the Pope as a "son of a bitch" who "is preaching communism". Milei replied that Massa represents "the most thieving government in the world".

The truth is that Milei is no longer the rebel he was. His new card is the support of Macri and the centre-right candidate, Patricia Bullrich, who was defeated in the first round. The longed-for anti-Kirchnerist front already exists. "We wanted to lead the change, but we got there", tweeted Macri on Thursday asking for Milei's vote. "It's not what we wanted, but it's what we have to do."

The attempt to normalize Milei became international with the support of a dozen foreign former presidents, among them former Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and former Mexican presidents Felipe Calderón and Vicente Fox. It is another red line crossed by centrist conservatism that hopes to have incorporated "libertarian punk" into the mainstream.

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

Assimilating the rebellion is an old strategy of power, even though it used to disarm the left. But it may backfire for Milei, whose popularity was based not only on the rejection of Peronism, but the failures of Machrismo. "Macri doubled inflation and also the external debt" explained the economist Matías Vernego in an interview. This is not forgotten in three years

In La Boca, perhaps the true strategy of Macri can be glimpsed. A week after the presidential elections, the elections for the presidency of Boca Juniors are held, and Macri presents himself again as a candidate for the vice presidency. The ex-president needs the support of Milei's activist base to regain control of Boca. The plan was summed up by one of Buenos Aires' ever-expert taxi drivers. The mountain bike rebel is already "a puppet of Macri".