Argentina Realigned

My flight landed in Buenos Aires on Saturday 21 October, early in the morning. The atmosphere was so tense it felt like a place I’d never visited before. Presidential elections were being held the next day, and the candidacy of hard-right libertarian Javier Milei appeared to threaten the consensus that had been in place since the democratic transition of 1983. He was soaring in the polls – vowing to demolish the welfare state, dollarize the economy and launch an authoritarian crackdown on dissent. Everyone knew that the ballot would have implications far beyond the next four years. When the results came through, there was palpable sense of relief: Milei got 30% of the vote, while the Economy Minister Sergio Massa outshone expectations with 37%. Now the two contenders will face a tight runoff election in mid-November. Regardless of who wins, there will be no reversion to the status quo ante. Argentina’s political system has entered a new era.

Frustration with the Peronist establishment had been mounting for some time. During the period of kirchnerismo – the presidency of Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007), followed by that of his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015) – the country’s economic outlook oscillated. There was almost a decade of sound recovery, poverty reduction and improvements in every social indicator, thanks to strong welfare policies and the global commodities boom. Yet in 2011 a period of stagnation began. Slow economic growth, plus political corruption scandals and weariness with kirchernista personalism, created the perfect storm for the 2015 elections – when Kirchner’s anointed successor Daniel Scioli lost to the conservative free-marketeer Mauricio Macri.

Macri was hardly an outsider. He had been the mayor of Buenos Aires for the previous eight years, while his political coalition, Cambiemos, had a significant presence in Congress and governors in a few provinces. Its prominence increased with the 2015 elections and even more with the 2017 mid-terms. In office, he removed currency controls and established a floating exchange rate, as well as pushing deregulation to court international investors. A new IMF loan in 2018 paved the way for punishing austerity measures, which did nothing to curb Argentina’s persistently high inflation. When the country returned to the polls in 2019, it was beset by increasing poverty and crushing foreign debt. Macri was duly kicked out of office and replaced by the Peronist Alberto Fernández, with Cristina Fernández as his VP.

The kirchneristas – favouring greater income redistribution and less concerned with the fiscal deficit and balance of payments – were to the left of the new President, who styled himself as a capable technocrat. Yet the former could not muster the same popular support as the latter, and they had little means of implementing their reformist policies in the absence of economic growth. The question for the right-wing opposition, now rebranded as Juntos por el Cambio, was whether they could rehabilitate Macri’s legacy, present a united front and capitalize on splits within the ruling coalition. Fortune seemed to smile on them, if not on Argentina itself, with the Covid-19 pandemic and the worst drought in national history, which sent annual inflation north of 100%. Juntos por el Cambio thereby cemented its position as the leading challenger to Peronism and made a strong showing in the 2021 mid-terms. Its hopes for the 2023 elections were high.   

Few saw what lay in store. Milei, a self-described ‘anarcho-capitalist’, opponent of ‘gender ideology’ and apologist for the Argentine dictatorship, erupted onto the political scene. Having led his coalition La Libertad Avanza into Congress in 2021, he began to build support among legions of discontented young men and first-time voters, with a programme that included shutting down the Central Bank and privatizing the healthcare and education systems. His breakthrough in the primary elections of 2023, where he won 30% of the vote compared to 28% for Juntos por el Cambio and 27% for the Peronist Unión por la Patria, was a shock. Milei benefitted from anger at the government while also exploiting the vivid memories of Macri’s administration. He showed up the fact that neither of these electoral formations had a hegemonic vision for Argentina: the incumbent was unable to fulfil its social-reformist promises; the opposition had no distinctive identity beyond its hatred of Peronism. For many voters, a third option was appealing.

These shifting tides prompted the two other leading candidates, Patricia Bullrich of Juntos por el Cambio and Sergio Massa of Unión por la Patria, to act. For the government, there was an urgent need to stop Milei from undermining Argentina’s democratic settlement – hence its promise to convene a national unity administration, bringing together Peronists and non-Peronists, following the elections. The kirchnerista forces within its ranks were either marginalized or fell in line. Massa hardened his economic nationalist rhetoric, stressing the importance of defending labour and development from unchecked markets. For the macristas, meanwhile, the problem was mainly tactical, since a popular candidate of the extreme right made them look like a weak imitation. Bullrich, attempting to attract both Milei voters and the centrist electorate, ran one of the most inept political campaigns in Argentine history. Milei, for his part, made an effort to soften some of his most radical positions – pledging that he would implement transitional policies to compensate for cutting welfare. But affecting moderation was not always easy. His television appearances were punctuated by fits of manic rage, such as when he accused Bullrich of ‘planting bombs in kindergartens’ – a baseless accusation intended to evoke her membership of the Montoneros guerrilla movement in the 1970s (she responded by suing him for defamation).

On the day of the election, most forecasts predicted that neither Mieli nor Massa would receive enough votes to avoid a runoff, though the first was ahead of the second. In the end, Bullrich plunged to 24%; Juan Schiaretti, a Peronist dissident, picked up 7%; and Myriam Bregman of the Trotskyist left won only 3%. Yet the two frontrunners saw their polling positions suddenly reversed. How to explain Massa’s surge? Various factors were in play. For starters, there were the pro-cyclical measures he implemented as Economy Minister, which succeeded in raising consumption and demand. Some of them, like the elimination of income taxes for certain white-collar workers and executives, were not progressive, but nor were they unpopular with voters. Others, like freezing transport fares and devolving certain sales taxes, tried to compensate those most affected by inflation. As a whole, their impact was to shore up his support in the short term while increasing inflationary pressures further down the line.  

On top of this, it appears that the protest vote against the government, though powerful in August, plummeted once there was a real threat of an unstable outsider winning the election. A former tantric sex coach and singer in a Rolling Stones cover band, Milei is open about his ‘unorthodox’ lifestyle. He employs a psychic medium to speak with his dead dog, Conan – a creature whom he had cloned for $50,000, thereby producing four other mastiffs, each of them named after a different libertarian economist. His violent rhetoric, climate denialism and unabashed misogyny make Trump and Bolsonaro look fainthearted. His political apparatus is almost non-existent: he has hired various family members including his mother and his sister, whom he quipped would be his ‘First Lady’ were he elected. As he grew more familiar to the electorate, and as his novelty value faded, Massa’s relatively staid and conventional persona began to seem more attractive. (There were even rumours that Massa secretly supported Milei in the primary, assuming he would be the easiest candidate to beat – although nothing concrete has emerged to support this speculation.)

Now, in the period between election contests, a broader realignment is in motion. The expectation that Juntos por el Cambio would establish a stable two-party system, alternating in power with the Peronists, has been fatally undermined. Tensions between the main components of the alliance, Macri’s Propuesta Republicana and the historic party of the centre right, the Unión Cívica Radical, have reached boiling point. Bullrich and Macri have endorsed Milei in a bid to bury Peronism once and for all. Yet for many other coalition members, who retain some minimal commitment to democratic and republican precepts, this is a line they will not cross. A split looks possible in the coming weeks.

As for the Peronists, the divisions within the Fernández government have been smoothed over, at least for now, by the spectre of Milei. There is cautious optimism that Massa – having already increased his tally by almost 9% since the primary – will triumph in the ballot next month. He is on course to monopolize most of Bregman’s supporters and some of Schiaretti’s. Yet the decisive factor will be Bullrich’s voter base. Faced with the choice between a Peronist and a wild-eyed authoritarian, whom will they back? The outsider candidate, who made his name by railing against Bullrich’s ‘political caste’, will now have to seduce her followers. Whether he has the strategic nous for this is unclear.

What is clear is the reshaping of the Argentine political system. For almost fifteen years it was structured by the antagonism between kirchnerismo and anti-kirchnerismo. Now that is no longer the case. The former has seen its influence diminished under Massa’s premiership, which marks a reversion to classical Peronism. The latter, represented by Juntos por el Cambio, has lost popular support and fallen prey to its internal contradictions. Over the coming years, Argentina might find itself in a situation not dissimilar to that of the US or Brazil: on one side, a reactionary bloc drifting in an increasingly anti-democratic direction; on the other, a centre-left coalition which, partly because it encompass such diverse actors, struggles to formulate a coherent programme. Even if Massa wins the runoffs, there is no denying that Argentine politics has swung to the right since first decade of the new century. How he governs, and the popular pressures to which he is subjected, will determine whether it swings back.

Read on: Maristella Svampa, ‘The End of Kirchnerism’, NLR 53.