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As we get closer to the PASO primaries, Argentina’s political situation is becoming increasingly unpredictable. Uncertainty is the name of the game, as the supposed leading candidates fail to consolidate their leads and the newcomers outperform.
At this juncture it is difficult to try and ascertain what the primaries will bring and what the electoral scenario will look like ahead of voting day and what today increasingly appears to be a certain run-off on the horizon. The causes behind this level of uncertainty are varied, and have been exacerbated by the breakdown of the predictive power of opinion polls around the world, which to a certain extent appears tied to a growing sense of disillusionment with the political class and its capacity to solve everyday problems, especially economic ones. In a country with galloping inflation and a consistent deterioration of the population’s purchasing-power, this had led to the rise of Javier Milei, an ultra-libertarian economist who promises to burn the Central Bank, eliminate the “political caste” and use a “chainsaw” to reduce a bloated state. Initially discarded as a something of a lunatic, Milei’s rise has become the defining factor in these elections, casting doubt on the supposed sure victory of the opposition coalition, Juntos por el Cambio, and potentially rendering the pan-Peronist Frente de Todos front into an unheard-of third place, a turn of events that would leave them outside the run-off. Not that they didn’t appear to do everything at hand to worsen their chances, and yet they could even remain competitive under certain scenarios. Everything, therefore, is in flux.
If Milei emerges as the single most-voted-for individual candidate in the PASOs, as most opinion polls suggest, it will be in great part down to the many failures of the traditional parties and their coalitions. Starting with Frente de Todos, they were born out of Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s weakness, with the former head of state forced to pick Alberto Fernández to lead the presidential ticket, given her own impossible levels of public rejection. Once in power the duo were forced to reckon with a nation in crisis in the aftermath of Mauricio Macri’s failed administration (who it must be noted, received a country with deep structural issues after 12 years of Kirchnerism), a global pandemic and the after-effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, that is no excuse for the string of self-inflicted wounds that stem from a dual leadership structure in which internal power struggles beget inefficiencies and procrastination. While choosing the right policy path is fundamental in having a successful administration, being unable to execute any given an all-out war between factions is a sure recipe for failure. Fernández de Kirchner bears major responsibility, along with President Fernández who was incapable or unwilling to try and shake her off. The signs of sure defeat in the 2021 midterm elections set off a series of events that undermined the government from within, accelerating the deterioration of certain macroeconomic variables and tanking their own electoral potential.
When it comes to the opposition, what felt looked like an assured victory this year for Juntos por el Cambio is now becoming a contentious issue. Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta has been preparing for this moment all his life, yet he’s failed to organize his political space in a way that will secure victory. Internal bickering but also insufficient determination to put forth a political and economic platform to seduce the electorate, both internal and external, is part of the reason why Rodríguez Larreta’s position now looks weakened. The rise of Patricia Bullrich, backed by Macri, speaks to a shift to the right within Juntos por el Cambio, in part as a response to the rise of Milei but also as it is probably the true ideology of leading members of the opposition coalition. Now, the battle is between Rodríguez Larreta and Bullrich over who can lead a space that is speaking only to itself, having failed to connect with the electorate in any meaningful way (a key factor that the opposition did achieve in their 2015 victory).
Milei is not without merit, of course. A lone wolf without the political structure that both coalitions boast, he’s managed to seduce a large swathe of the population, especially younger males, with an anti-system message that he’s distributed throughout social and mainstream media. Having identified the political class as “the caste,” he touches an emotional fibre when he tells his followers he will dismantle the state and everyone that clings to its teet. His message, at the end of the day, has nothing to do with content and all to do with delivery – it’s the anger, the passion, and the rebelliousness, which this time out is growing from the right. As his opponents speak in traditional political terms, circumscribing their message to the elites, Milei talks the language of the people, even if he’s citing Austrian economic theory. It seems that Juntos por el Cambio and the Frente de Todos either haven’t realized how to respond or lack the resources to do so. Everything seems to suggest he will take the most votes in the PASO primaries of all the candidates individually and could even turn the election into a technical three-way tie. The big problem with projecting Milei’s current figures in the polls into real voting intention is the lack of previous empirical data, given the novelty of the phenomenon.
A recent survey put together by Synopsis Consultores, mainly conducted by in-person interviews, suggests Milei would take 25.2 percent of the vote in the primaries, compared to 24.6 percent for the Frente de Todos and 26.2 percent for Juntos por el Cambio. Rodríguez Larreta would barely beat Bullrich with 14 percent, compared to 12.2 percent. A hypothetical candidacy by Sergio Massa would take 14.3 percent, while Daniel Scioli would come in second with 10.3 percent. A whole 9.5 percent remain undecided. As highlighted above (and though well within the statistical margin or error), not only could Milei become the single most-voted-for candidate, he could even take the primaries as a political force, coming in ahead of Juntos por el Cambio and Frente de Todos. The same situation occurs when looking at hypothetical run-off scenarios against Massa, Rodríguez Larreta, and Bullrich.
Anything can happen.
This piece was originally published in the Buenos Aires Times, Argentina’s only English-language newspaper.