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Election of the Day 1: Argentina

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Today, Argentina will vote in a presidential election. Also on the ballot today are 130/257 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and 24/72 seats in the Senate. The Chamber of deputies is elected by proportional representation in 24 multimember constituencies, with a 3% threshold. 3 seats each in 8/24 constituencies are up for election in the Senate. Senate elections are by party, with the leading party awarded two seats, and the second place party awarded one.

Attention will be focused on the presidential race, and for good reason. In all likelihood, this election will require a runoff, as there are three major candidates and a couple minor ones, and a first round victory would require the leading candidate either get 45% of the vote, or 40% with the nearest contender at least 10% behind them. The three major candidates are Sergio Massa, representing a Peronist center-left coalition aligned with the current President, and Patricia Bullrich, representing a center-right coalition. The third candidate, likely to be today’s leading candidate, is Javier Milei, of the Libertarian Party and the far-right Liberty Advances coalition. The Guardian describes this candidate thusly:

A foul-mouthed, far-right populist who has been described as a cross between Boris Johnson and the killer doll Chucky is in pole position to become president of South America’s second-largest economy as Argentina chooses its next leader on Sunday against a backdrop of anti-establishment fury and economic disarray.

Election-eve polls suggest Javier Milei, a charismatic and wild-haired political outsider who found fame pontificating on television chatshows about monetary policy and sex, could sneak a first-round win, although a November runoff is likely.

At his final campaign event in Buenos Aires on Wednesday, the 53-year-old “anarcho-capitalist” addressed a packed 15,000-capacity stadium from a stage adorned with a banner proclaiming him “The Only Solution” to Argentina’s economic malaise.

“Whatever it takes, we have to win on Sunday,” bellowed Milei. “It’s going to be the first fucking round! Round fucking one!”

“We’ve already won the World Cup. Now we’re going to win control of this country with our ideas of freedom,” claimed Ramiro Marra, a close ally from Milei’s coalition, La Libertad Avanza (Freedom Advances).

Milei, a freewheeling TV personality who only entered politics in 2021 after being elected to congress, is often compared to Donald Trump, whom he has praised. “There is an alignment with all those who are willing to fight against socialism at the international level,” Milei told the Economist last month, minimizing Trump’s role in the January 6 Capitol riots.

Others liken the Argentinian to Brazil’s former far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, who this week urged “all Argentinians” to support Milei’s push for “real change”. “I’m really rooting for you,” Bolsonaro said in a video message, promising to attend Milei’s inauguration.

Bolsonaro’s congressman son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, will fly to Buenos Aires for Sunday’s vote, as will Chile’s ultra-conservative former presidential candidate, a member of the European parliament for Spain’s far-right party Vox.

The similarities between Milei’s campaign and the one that brought Bolsonaro to power in Brazil are perhaps unsurprising, given that they feature some of the same characters, including Milei’s social media chief, Fernando Cerimedo, who was part of Bolsonaro’s victorious 2018 team.

Milei joins the Confederation (the Polish rightwing party positioned to the right of PiS, who scored a disappointing 7% in past week’s election) in a horrifying new trend of marrying an radical anti-government libertarian message to conventional illiberal nationalist rightwing populism. Clearly, this deviation from the standard right-populist approach has not been much of an impediment to his international peers enthusiastically embracing him. Even should his party do very well, his ability to enact his frankly insane legislative vision will be constrained by Argentina’s staggered legislative elections (the Libertarian coalition currently only has 4 seats in the Chamber, and only half are up for re-election), but the threat he poses to Argentinean democracy extends well beyond the legislative sphere. It’s unclear where he sits on the “true believer” to “carnival barker spouting applause lines” spectrum, but on any location along that spectrum he constitutes a major threat to Argentinean democracy. Obviously his chances of actually becoming president will depend to no small degree on the ability of his opponents to unite against him, as well as many votes he can actually get today. No polls have him at the 40% threshold, but his upward surge in the last two months suggest he could get alarmingly close. Polls are mixed on who is likely to finish second, but the center-left coalition is on a clear downward trajectory while the center-right coalition has seen more stable poll numbers, so the latter is probably more likely.

It’s probably not the case that a substantial plurality of Argentineans have suddenly become superfans of Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard. Milei’s support is probably better understood as a primal scream against an establishment that has failed pretty spectacularly. As we debate the residual effects of a year or so of high single digit inflation on Biden’s reelection chances, Argentina is seeing an inflation rate of 140% and a dramatic increase in the percentage of people living in severe poverty. Under such circumstances, Milei’s scheme to abandon the peso in favor of the US dollar might strike some as sensible and pragmatic. The current government’s inconsistent and flailing response to the ongoing economic crisis is almost certainly crucial to understanding Milei’s appeal.

Based on a scan of the polling, I’d say if Milei ends up over 35% with a lead greater than 5%, that would be pretty worrisome. If he’s closer to 30% than 35, and with a lead of 3% or less, that bodes a little better for Argentina avoiding catastrophe.

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