Takeaways from Argentina’s 2023 presidential election

Our thoughts on what happened and what’s to come

“Argentina, no la entenderías” (Argentina, you wouldn’t understand) someone said to me on Sunday night. I was befuddled, and for good reason. Going into yesterday’s first round vote, libertarian candidate Javier Milei (La Libertad Avanza, LLA) was the strong favorite after his surprise victory in the August primaries. 

Instead, the economy minister of a country with 138% inflation and a currency crisis was the most-voted candidate. 

In a matter of minutes, the conversation last night went from whether Milei would win the presidency in the first round to whether Economy Minister and Union por la Patria (UxP) candidate Sergio Massa could eke out an outright victory. 

The results: Massa took 36%, Milei 30%, and Juntos por el Cambio (JxC) candidate Patricia Bullrich 23.8%.

Ultimately, no candidate secured the votes necessary to avoid a runoff. Argentines will cast a second ballot on November 19, choosing between Massa and Milei. Juntos por el Cambio (JxC) candidate Patricia Bullrich will have to watch from home. 

Let’s start with a debrief.

Between the August primary, an early indicator of a general election’s outcome, and today, Unión por la Patria picked up more than 3.5 million votes, closing the first round with north of 9 million total votes. Milei started strong in the primaries, winning more votes (7.1 million) than any other candidate during the primary. On Sunday, he added roughly 708,000 votes. 

The biggest losers were Juntos por el Cambio, who lost 487,000 votes, while Córdoba Province Governor Juan Schiaretti (Hacemos por Nuestro País) nearly doubled his primary performance, raking in an additional 867,000 votes. 

What happened?

First: nearly the entire political “mainstream” — both Unión por la Patria and Juntos por el Cambio, as well as a large chunk of the business and financial communities — hit out against Milei in recent weeks. 

His statements describing the Argentine currency as worth less than “excrement” and advising against renewing fixed-term deposits in pesos drew widespread condemnation from across the political spectrum. 

During debates, both Massa and Bullrich criticized Milei’s proposals as unrealistic and even harmful. Vocal opposition to Milei from the mainstream left and right alike probably turned some voters off the libertarian and some of his key policies, including dollarization. 

Second: the Pope Francis effect. Running for president of a majority Catholic country, Milei made the curious decision to publicly insult the Pope, calling the spiritual leader an “imbecile,” a “communist,” and the “representative of evil on Earth.” 

The statements drew swift condemnation from Argentina’s influential Catholic Church. But the Pope himself weighed in last week. Without mentioning Milei by name, Pope Francis warned against those who offer “messianic” solutions to a crisis and decried labor exploitation, something Milei has been accused of promoting with his policies. In Catholic Argentina, the Argentine Pope’s words surely carried some weight with certain voters. 

Third: Bullrich’s inability to unite Juntos por el Cambio and her perceived policy illiteracy. Bullrich emerged victorious but weak from JxC’s bruising primary. Since August, she has fought a two-front battle, fighting to capture more moderate elements of the opposition coalition while defending her right-wing flank against Milei. 

At the same time, she has been perceived as struggling to define a clear policy platform, which has likely done little to endear her to on-the-fence voters. 

What’s to come?

It’s hard to say: much is still up in the air. But a few questions we’re asking ourselves at the Herald might help you make sense of the coming weeks. 

Has Milei hit a ceiling? Despite his shock win during the August primaries, Milei added 708,000 voters yesterday. While his unconventional policies might have built him a strong core of support, might they deter even slightly more moderate voters? 

Milei seems to be asking himself the same thing. During his post-election speech, he congratulated certain members of Propuesta Repúblicana (PRO), JxC’s largest constituent party, on their performances during the election. That suggests he’s already looking to court JxC voters during the runoff. Whether or not they’ll sign on to some of his more radical ideas remains to be seen. 

Can Peronism keep growing? UxP shocked analysts by adding more than 3.5 million voters. Will it be able to capture more moderates or undecided voters? How Massa pursues the “national unity government” that he mentioned in his speech could be the deciding factor. 

How will JxC voters fall? The opposition coalition might fracture heading into the runoff. Voters of JxC’s more moderate Radical Party may be more likely to fall with Massa, while PRO voters will be more of a tossup but could swing Milei. 

And what of Schiaretti’s supporters? As an anti-Kirchnerist Peronist, the Córdoba governor has repeatedly accused Massa of being beholden to UxP’s more hardline faction. How Schiaretti’s 1.7 million supporters will vote in November could make or break Massa.

How will markets react? Time will tell. But the prospect of Milei winning in the first round while having no real plan for implementing his flagship dollarization scheme has had markets on edge since August. 

Moving forward, market actors will keep a close eye on who Milei and Massa name to lead their economy ministries, as well as statements on policy specifics.


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