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Elections in Argentina: Seminar at Canning House

The flag of Argentina is flying on a flagpole. It has blue sky behind it
Photo by Ken Walker via Wikimedia Commons

On 22 October 2023, Argentina held its General Election. Prior to the election, Canning House, the principal forum for relations between Britain and Latin America, hosted four panelists, including a King’s College London (KCL) academic, for a seminar to discuss the developments and implications of the election.

Jeremy Browne, chief executive of Canning House, introduced the four panelists and structure of the seminar. Each panelist gave an overview of their outlook on the election before continuing into some lively debate and Q&A with the audience.  

Professor Emeritus David Rock, University of California Santa Barbara, began with a more academic overview of Argentina’s history as context for the development of the current candidates’ political platforms. Currently, Argentina is grappling with 130% inflation and a potential path to hyperinflation.

Rock then discussed three main candidates: Javier Milei, the candidate garnering the most attention, Sergio Massa, and Patricia Bullrich. Rock commented that Milei’s proposals are “mere electoral postures to be modified when power [is gained]”. Sergio Massa, leader of the Frente Renovador party, has a high standing in Buenos Aires, despite his party’s low standing in previous elections. Patricia Bullrich, leader of the Juntos por el Cambio party, reiterates the conservative position of cutting spending and increasing exports as an economic plan, a “more moderate, sensible version” of Milei’s dollarisation. 

Current polls strongly favor Milei, a far-right populist, followed by Massa and then Bullrich. However, Argentina’s electoral rules require a candidate to secure 45% of the vote. If this threshold is not met, a runoff will occur in November. 

Ramiro Blazquez, Head of Research and Strategy at BancTrust & Co., gave an economic perspective on the Argentine election with a more positive outlook for the country’s future. Blazquez claimed Argentina was at a similar place, economically, as it had been in the 80s when the economy had a “V-shaped recovery”. He claims the best-case scenario from an economic perspective is Javier Milei, describing Milei as “pro-market”. 

Blazquez posits that to stabilise the Argentine economy a fiscal anchor must be created. Milei’s contentious claim to dollarise Argentina and slash public spending by 15% is “mostly fireworks” but if he accomplishes at least 30% of his promises, Argentina has a chance. Blazquez is not worried about dollarisation since Argentina “does not have the dollars to dollarise”.

Ezequiel Gonzalez-Ocantos, Professor of Comparative and Judicial Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford, took a broader perspective. He contends that the Argentine political landscape has remained mostly stable, except for 1983. Argentine federalism poses high barriers of entry to political outsiders. Typically, challenger parties in Argentina only gain traction in Buenos Aires. Milei’s unique appeal broke this trend, as he garnered most of his support in the interior of the country, where local media markets and state influence are more significant.

Despite this anomaly, Gonzalez-Ocantos believes Milei lacks a solid, enduring support base if elected. He argues that Latin American presidents must maintain legislative support to avoid impeachment. Gonzalez-Ocantos explains Milei’s ascendance in his ability to attract young males with an “anarcho-libertarian discourse” and be disruptive to the established market for votes. Milei could insert a “new dimension of access” by shattering the illusion of stable politics in Argentina. The political scientist emphasises the “effective polarisation” of which Milei took advantage, creating a gap in the voter market.

Dr. Ingrid Bleynat, senior lecturer in International Development at KCL, in stark contrast to Blazquez’s optimism, predicted no change would result from this election. Argentina will continue to prioritise the US in trade, negotiate with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and develop underdeveloped sectors – i.e. oil, gas, and lithium – with foreign investment.

Dr. Bleynat noted that the peso does not function as money in Argentina as most savings, properties, and rentals are valued in dollars, suggesting dollarisation may have already begun. Inflation is appallingly high and the gap between the manage and market exchange rate is unbearable. She predicted Massa and Bullrich will have similar stabilisation plans involving lowering government expenditure, increasing interest rates, and tighter fiscal and monetary policies. She views Milei’s dollarisation as an extreme version of this, like Blazquez and Rock. An improvement in the macroeconomic situation will arise from increased investment in the previously mentioned sectors and the resulting production, weakening the commercial constraint. 

Regarding the election itself, Dr. Bleynat contended that Argentina is undergoing a crisis in its political system and the traditional political parties. She suggests Massa is a “safer bet” since he is willing to negotiate with different classes in society, in opposition to Gonzalez-Ocantos’s claims that Bullrich would be a better choice for president as she has better governability to implement policies that are politically sustainable.

During the round of questions, a few topics were touched upon, some creating disagreement amongst the panel: 

Regarding American interests, Rock suggests that the United States might favor a middle-of-the-road, conservative candidate like Patricia Bullrich, seeing Milei as a destabilizing force. Any moves by Milei to cut subsidies or disrupt the political status quo could invite public unrest.

As for the potential for enacting change in terms of foreign investments in Argentina, political commentator Blazquez points out that one term may not be enough, citing the example of Menem’s reforms in the 90s leading to governance challenges. Gonzalez-Ocantos suggests that electoral success is crucial for achieving continuity, especially given Milei’s unconstitutional proclamations regarding an extended leadership period.

The potential end of Kirchnerism is a subject of debate. Rock believes that Milei might need to accommodate elements of Kirchnerism to form a ruling coalition, as he lacks a party structure and organized support. On the other hand, political analyst Blazquez warns that talk of the end of Kirchnerism could lead to political violence in Argentina, with their clout depending on their ability to retain control of Buenos Aires. Dr. Bleynat asserts that the death of Kirchnerism is possible since the political parties in Argentina may need to realign and transform after this election. Ezequiel Gonzalez-Ocantos emphasizes that declaring any political movement dead, especially considering the province of Buenos Aires, is premature. The region holds significant political weight.

Predictions for Argentina General Election

NameWill there be a winner on Sunday?Which candidates contest the runoff?Who will win in runoff?
Professor Emeritus David Rock NoMassa & MileiMilei 55% chance
Massa 45% chance
Ramiro Blazquez50-60% probability of winner on Sunday Bullrich & MileiBullrich, very narrowly
Dr. Ingrid BleynatNoBullrich & MileiMilei
Ezequiel Gonzalez-Ocantos30% chance of winner on Sunday Milei and one other candidate Milei defeats Massa but Bullrich defeats Milei

In the end, the panelists agreed that polls have been unreliable when predicting Milei’s victory on Sunday, suggesting a runoff election between Milei and another candidate was imminent.

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