October 23, 2023 - 10:00am

Before yesterday’s first round of the Argentinean presidential election, all the attention had been on Javier Milei, the chainsaw-wielding Right-winger who promised to “kick politicians out on their asses”. Polls varied but most indicated he would win the election. There was even a possibility that Milei might win outright on Sunday night and not require a second-round run-off. Given repeated polling upsets around the world in recent years, it would hardly have been a huge surprise. 

In the end, the “shock” was that Sergio Massa of the governing centre-left Peronist coalition came in first, achieving 36% of the vote. Milei was second with 30% — an underwhelming result, which failed to improve on the score he achieved in Argentina’s open primaries in August. 

Patricia Bullrich, of the centre-right Juntos por el Cambio (JxC) coalition, was outflanked on her right and came in third. Amidst a serious financial crisis, rising crime and an unpopular government, Bullrich was seen some months ago as a shoo-in. Instead, she managed only 24% and faces a serious conundrum now as electoral kingmaker. 

The narrative that seems to have prevailed in Argentina is the undoing of the establishment centre-right. This was their election to lose: the inflation rate is running at nearly 140%, GDP shrunk by 4.9% in the second quarter, and the poverty rate just hit 40%. Massa has been Economy Minister for the past year and thus easy to target as the one responsible for the situation. For the main opposition, it should have been an easy sell.

Bullrich was the markets’ favourite, promising to zero the deficit, loosen capital controls and institute a dual peso-dollar monetary system. With Milei threatening extreme economic measures, she could emphasise her relative moderation.  

Yet it was to little avail. The JxC coalition’s candidate ended up squeezed out by far more radical proposals on her right, and on her left by a moderate who could at least speak to concerns of social justice. 

With this in mind, last night’s result echoes what has happened in Latin America and beyond in recent years. In Brazil the ascendance of Right-wing outsider Jair Bolsonaro eviscerated the main centre-right party’s vote. Similarly, Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party has marginalised what used to be the party’s pro-business mainstream. 

This is significant for Argentinian politics, long dominated by two pillars: Peronism and anti-Peronism. For the first time in decades, anti-Peronism will be neither in government nor perhaps even in a situation to provide ideological leadership for the opposition.

Peronist ex-president Cristina Kirchner is currently vice-president but declined to run because of corruption allegations against her. President Alberto Fernandez is so unpopular he also decided not to run for reelection. And though Massa represents a more moderate force within the coalition, he is identified with a political establishment that has overseen interminable economic crisis. 

Nevertheless, Sunday’s result shows that the centre may hold a little while longer. Despite being the government’s candidate, Massa promised reform, underpinned by priorities like maintaining a trade surplus, accumulating reserves to get the IMF off the country’s back, and “development with inclusion”. It’s unclear whether this was actually persuasive or whether it was simply fear of Milei’s proposals — such as dollarisation of the economy and “taking a chainsaw” to the state — that prevailed. 

It was Milei who was swamped at voting stations and had talked up a first-round victory in typically abrasive style. But instead he was left to thank supporters for all the “presents” he had received on election day, talk up this “historic achievement” and look forward to a showdown with his Peronist opponent on 19 November. 

The second round will be tight. Bullrich voters may be tempted to vote for Milei to kick the Peronists out, but it is unclear whether she will herself endorse her Right-wing opponent. The fear would be of losing her coalition’s status as the official opposition to Peronism. Meanwhile, centre-left and Left-wing candidates who scored in the single digits will likely back Massa. 

In any case, the narratives are set. With Milei playing the now-standard Right-populist card of election fraud and stolen ballots, Massa supporters can portray this as a fight between democracy and social justice and its opposite. Milei’s fervent fans can take their icon’s lead and portray it as a fight for liberty against statism, globalism, and socialism.

The reality is that neither will provide a resolution to Argentina’s crisis. Things will likely continue to stagnate, or worse. The choice, really, is between Massa’s slow road and Milei’s superhighway. 

Alex Hochuli is a writer based in São Paulo. He hosts the Aufhebunga Bunga podcast and is co-author of The End of the End of History: Politics in the 21st Century.