Campaigning and the risk of counting chickens

Sergio Massa and Javier Milei are stepping up to the plate as they face the run-off, inaugurating a completely new electoral phase

FILE PHOTO: Argentina Presidential candidate Sergio Massa of Union por la Patria party and Javier Milei of La Libertad Avanza party walk past each other during the presidential debate ahead of the October 22 general elections, at the National University of Santiago del Estero, in Santiago del Estero, Argentina October 1, 2023. Tomas Cuesta/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

In Argentina, we have to constantly throw away our guidebooks. Proof of that was the unpredictable results of the PASO primaries, which delivered a three-way fragmentation with Javier Milei as a clear winner, surprisingly climbing into the presidential arena. And then came Peronism’s unexpected recovery on Sunday, which was absent from anyone’s radar. It’s a lesson for the outsider candidate: never count your chickens before they hatch. 

A new campaign starts today, unlike anything we’ve seen so far. The professional politician has the momentum now. 

In previous calculations, the numbers showed that a difference greater than six points with a percentage above 35 points would smell like a done deal in the run-off, despite everyone expecting the libertarian would be the one continuing his rising star. Both blank votes and absent voters went toward yesterday’s winner

Sergio Massa achieved a miracle: in an economy exhausted with bad news, he leverages the Justicialist Party’s machinery, conducts the most professional campaign of the three main candidates, and scores a win that places him at the gates of leading Peronism. All while being economy minister, defying more than belief and almost making us question the laws of gravity. And one step away from a triumph that, if it comes to pass, will have to be analyzed by scientists. 

Meanwhile, Milei must decide whether he will start a campaign that will help him break through his ceiling, which proved to be identical to his ground base. He and his party members staged daily political equivalents to Molotov cocktails as their main offer to the electorate, confident after managing to lead the polls without even having an organized campaign.

Milei started making certain signals in his speech last night when he opened his arms to Juntos por el Cambio (JxC) voters and identified Kirchnerism, which he likened to a “criminal organization,” as the true enemy. He will have no choice but to take on JxC’s slogan — change — and moderate his outbursts to attract Patricia Bullrich’s voters, attempting to lure them with bigger doses of anti-Peronism rather than a leap into the abyss. There is no way of imagining how he will walk back the path of wild statements he made about JxC after depicting them as “worse” than Kirchnerism.  

Bullrich’s erratic campaign cost her, liquefying the political capital of a party that once governed the country and later stood as the main opposition force. Former president Mauricio Macri put a face to the situation by standing next to his former security minister accepting defeat — but her speech was about a path that is no longer clear within the electoral coalition. Macri was the executioner of his internal lineage and will have to measure his timing to finally end up supporting the libertarian candidate and will try to put his people in Milei’s ministries. 

When looking at the main parties within the JxC coalition, this is a logical pivot for Macri’s PRO party but it remains to be seen how the Coalición Cívica and Radicalism will react since they have already displayed distaste for what Milei represents. Watching political leaders — who until last night claimed that Milei was Massism’s puppet — reaching out to him will be priceless. There is never a dull moment in Argentina.  

In this new campaign, Massa will turn to the obvious. He can formally entice Juan Schiaretti’s Cordoba forces, the left and the radicals with a unified national government that won’t deny them the chance of having some protagonism. As for the rest, he blasted the generally held notion that an economy ministry on palliative care had zero electoral chances.

Massa’s talent is selling the future, blurring the present to make it digestible, and accepting the nostalgic invitation Kirchnerism offers by providing them with surgical dosages of vindication and attending to their sensibilities. The phenomenon caused last night’s triumph of a government nobody defends, except President Alberto Fernández, and from which Massa detaches himself while playing a key role in it. This experiment is yet another novelty of the campaign.

In his speech last night, Massa skillfully spoke about a “modern labor regime” and “opening a new institutional stage,” tapping into issues that have seemed taboo for the government in the past decade. The minister hinted at “the end of the grieta (political divide)” which could be read as pushing Kirchnerism to the margins, while Milei will try to put Kirchnerism front and center as much as possible to stir up rejection. If Massa’s detachment becomes the campaign narrative, anti-Kirchnerism will become just as marginal.

Back in the field, the PJ had made a play to “look after” Milei’s votes in the primaries (to hold Bullrich’s numbers down), but that was out of the question on Sunday. The consolidation of Governor Axel Kicillof’s leadership is the other novelty to keep in mind. Not so much because he crushed his opponents and got re-elected, but because he was able to get rid of several scandals, emerging as a key pivot if Massa ends up in the presidency. They helped each other and neutralized the internal bleeding.

The new scenario inaugurates a different campaign in a new context for Argentine politics. It destroys predictions, conjures the determinism of the PASO primaries, and will create a new leadership. The winner will be whoever best reads society’s need for certainties without suffocating them in these next 30 days of campaign, which are fundamental for the political future of Argentina.

Originally published in / Translated by Agustín Mango


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