Surprises in Argentine Run-Up to Presidential Election

By Julia Muriel Dominzain and Diego González

In both the August primary elections In Argentina and the general elections on October 22, the electorate surprised the pundits, in two very different ways. In the primaries, the far-right libertarian candidate, Javier Milei, took first place and the current Minister of Economy, Sergio Massa, came in third. But in the general elections of October 22 the scenario was reversed: Massa. of the Union for the Homeland party (Unión por la Patria) rose from 21% to 36.6% of votes, while Milei (Liberty Advances-La Libertad Avanza) stagnated at just under 30%. The second round will be held on November 19.

Massa y Milei
Massa y Milei, Argentina

It’s not hard to understand the social anger in the face of an economy in crisis, with much of the employment stuck in the informal sector and an inflation rate of more than 150% per year. In this context, Milei became the channel that conveyed popular frustration. The libertarian candidate presented himself as the outsider who capitalized on the discontent and proposed “anarcho-capitalist” solutions, such as eliminating the Central Bank and dollarizing the Argentine economy.

On the Sunday of the election, however, the results totally contradicted the polls that gave the victory to Milei. On Monday came the explanations, all ad hoc. How did Massa “turn it around” and take first place by a margin of almost 7 points? Why didn’t Milei increase his support? What stymied the candidate who promised to eliminate the “caste”, the Central Bank, the Argentine peso and the “privileges” of women and diversities?

It might have been some of his more extreme promises -or threats- that prevented him from broadening his base to new voters. He proposed the open sale of arms, privatizing the oceans and allowing commerce in human organs. He also denied that 30,000 people disappeared during the period of the military dictatorship (1976-1983), the existence of climate change and the gender wage gap.

Or it could have been his attacks on basically everything that makes Argentines Argentine–saying that he “identifies with” Margaret Thatcher in a country that still seeks to recover its Falkland Islands, declaring that the Argentine peso is “not even worth excrement”, insulting Maradona and calling Pope Francis “that imbecile in Rome”.

In an Argentina that has moved to the right, Massa ended up with the whole center. He is the “normal” candidate, according to the perception expressed in social media, “with a wife and children”, the one who “passes a psycho-technical test”.

In the 48 hours after the election, Patricia Bullrich, the candidate who answers to former conservative President Mauricio Macri threw her support to Milei in the second round. Her center-right coalition, Together for Change-Juntos por el Cambio, that incorporated the old Unión Cívica Radical and brought Macri and his party PRO to power in 2015, was immediately on the verge of collapse. Bullrich’s support represents a 180-degree turn, since this election disrupted the traditional Argentine political system. From the old polarization between a center-left with Kirchnerist Peronism on one side and, on the other, a conservative-moderate bloc led by Macrismo, a scenario has opened up with three political forces, in which Milei pushes everything to the right.

Massa: the proposal of “National Unity”

The current Minister of Economy, Sergio Massa, is the candidate of the ruling party. The 51 year-old lawyer has a long history in Peronism. He took his first steps in politics in the late 80’s and early 90’s with the Union of the Democratic Center, a conservative liberal party. Years later he joined Peronism and experienced a rapid rise in the government of Nestor Kirchner. Massa became head of the National Administration of Social Security (Anses) and at a very young age rose to Chief of Cabinet in the first government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. However, shortly thereafter he made a break with Kirchnerism and moved to the opposition.

He defeated the government in the 2013 elections in the decisive province of Buenos Aires. In 2015 he ran for president in elections won by Macri, coming in third with 21% of the vote. However, by 2019 he was a key player in the reunification of Peronism that put forward Alberto Fernandez as the candidate to defeat Macri in his reelection bid.

This zigzagging political path, along with the serious political and economic crisis of the  government he forms part of but tries not to vindicate in his campaign, are major obstacles for the Massa campaign. For all these reasons, the ruling party has had a hard time building a positive identity. In fact, there is no such thing as “grassroots Massa-ism”–his voters are not enthusiastic about his candidacy, but they support him because they fear the abyss. A politician by vocation, all his life he has sought to gain power in order to reach the presidency.

In an Argentina that has moved to the right, Massa ended up with the whole center. He is the “normal” candidate, according to the perception expressed in social media, “with a wife and children”, the one who “passes a psycho-technical test”.

Massa, who had the enormous difficulty of being the Minister of Economy at a time of high inflation, ended up with the combined symbolic force of Maradona, the Malvinas and the Pope. He proposed a government of national unity instead of staking his bets on division, and he promised the end of “la grieta” (the crack)–the popular term for the traditional confrontation between Macrismo and Kirchnerism.

Massa took over as minister of economy during the last big crisis, in July 2022.  His role was to break through the government’s paralysis, caused by internal conflicts. By taking over as minister, Massa actually took charge, in political terms, of the whole government. President Alberto Fernandez, meanwhile, became practically irrelevant and entered a prolonged period of relative inaction and silence.

That is why today Massa boasts of having made a brave decision by accepting the ministry at such a critical moment. It is certainly not a very convincing argument for an electoral campaign, given that almost all social and economic variables have worsened from that date to today, in a country that suffers one of the worst droughts in its history and must pay, at the same time, a suffocating foreign debt to the IMF.

In fact, there is no such thing as “grassroots Massa-ism”–his voters are not enthusiastic about his candidacy, but they support him because they fear the abyss.

Massa’s strategy in the face of Milei’s radicalism is to hold the center. He stresses a key idea in his second-round campaigning: national unity. From that platform, he promises to incorporate politicians from outside Peronism to lessen the old rift. His permanent appeal to “national interests” and the risk to democracy that a Milei presidency represents are his best hopes for November 19.

Javier Milei: “I am the lion”

Argentines often refer to “Baglini’s theorem”, which states that a party or politician’s proposals are responsible in proportion to the possibilities of gaining access to power. On the closing day of the campaign, Milei shared the podium with one person–his intellectual mentor, the economist Alberto Benegas Lynch. Benegas Lynch pronounced the “Milei Theorem”, which represents exactly the opposite: as Milei gets closer to power, he becomes more radical. Minutes later, he proposed breaking relations with the Vatican.

Milei portrays himself as “the lion”. Who does “the lion” appeal to? What part of the population has responded to his promises to end the “privileges” that, according to him, are enjoyed by the political elite or “caste” and women? According to a survey, men made up 63.6% of his votes in the Primaries, while only 36.4% were women. Another survey coincides with the trend: Milei had the support of only 20% among women and 34% among men before the October election.

Women’s vote appears to be a major factor in the outcome of the general elections. Milei seems to have suffered for his comments denying the a gap between men’s and women’s salaries, or vowing to close the Ministry of Women, Genders and Diversities, or declaring “I will not apologize for having a penis”, or stating he would put abortion to a referendum, in the country that was a pioneer in the Not One More (Ni Una Menos) [anti-femicide] movement and that won approval of the Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy.

Massa promises to continue with gender equity policies, an area in which the current government of Alberto Fernandez stood out even internationally. In a press conference with international media following the election, Massa highlighted the role of women in his triumph: “Those mothers who are worried about the future of their children, those women who do not want to live in a society where the sale of organs or the open carrying of weapons are part of the system of values, those who in some way want a State that protects and guarantees efficiency in vaccinations, health and education systems–they have been important for us”.

What happens next

In Argentina, 2023 was particularly bad: it suffered the consequences of the pandemic, payments to the IMF, the collateral impact of the war in Ukraine on energy prices, and a serious drought that damaged crops and the national agricultural industry so much that it lowered GDP by 3%.

However, the rains have arrived and forecast a good harvest in a country that is highly dependent on agricultural production, particularly soybeans. The first section of the “Nestor Kirchner Gas Pipeline” linking the world’s second largest shale gas reserve with the Province of Buenos Aires is now ready, so the country will not only stop importing energy, but is expected to become an exporter. This may imply a change in the country’s economic matrix, taking into consideration the combined impact of non-conventional gas and oil production in the project known as “Vaca Muerta”, the extraction and potential development of lithium in the Northwest and deepwater drilling expected in the Atlantic coast.

On Nov. 19, Argentines will go to the polls in a climate of uncertainty and economic crisis. The ruling party has little leverage to convince an electorate overburdened by current ills. But Milei’s radical ultra-right proposals have taken such disturbing forms that, although he promises that it will benefit them, uncertainty reigns among some of the nation’s most powerful business sectors.

In any case, what seems to be here to stay is a political system that shows signs that it will no longer swing between the poles of the old crises. Whoever wins will have the difficult task of governing a fragmented politic and a wounded society with diverse and volatile demands.



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