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Don’t Cry for Me Argentina: Primary Elections Put a Right-Wing Candidate on the Podium

In PerspectiveArgentina’s primary, open, and compulsory elections (PASO) confirmed a shift in the political system towards the far right. The result of the PASO is the conclusion of a process that for at least a decade has seen a sustained deterioration in the living conditions of the population, in the context of increases in the precariousness of labour and in the financialization of life.

Argentina’s primary, open, and compulsory elections (PASO) confirmed a shift in the political system towards the far right. The paleo-libertarian economist Javier Milei, from his political party La Libertad Avanza, obtained 30.04 percent of votes. The traditional right-wing opposition force, Juntos por el Cambio, formerly Cambiemos, won 28.27 percent with candidate Patricia Bullrich, and Unión por la Patria (Union for the Motherland, the ruling party, which won in 2019 under the name Frente de Todxs) only achieved 27.27 percent for candidate Sergio Massa (the current Minister of the Economy). The parliamentary left of the Frente de Izquierda y los Trabajadores – Unidad (FITU, Trotskyist) won just 2.65 percent for candidate Myriam Bregman, while the “progressive” faction within the Unión por la Patria, Frente Patria Grande (Great Motherland Front) won 5.5 percent for Juan Grabois. At the same time, the blank vote accounted for 4.78 percent of the positive vote, while almost 31 percent of people did not vote, a new record.

With a novel political force, Milei won with a violent anti-state discourse, proposing to cut national public spending by 15 percent of GDP (when the state’s primary expenditure is 24 percent of GDP), claiming that “social justice” is an aberration, and proposing the dollarisation of the economy. His discourse focuses on proposing himself as an opposition to what he calls “the caste”, i.e. the traditional political class that has historically governed. In Milei’s mind, the battle against “the caste” enables him to crusade against the social rights enshrined in the laws and the National Constitution because, according to him, the institutions that guarantee them are hubs of corruption and an attack on individual liberties. Following a poor version of the Austrian School of economics (e.g. Hayek, Rothbard), Milei assumes that any public intervention and action is a violation of human freedom, and deserves to be swept away. Milei’s political faction includes figures with denialist positions regarding the crimes of the last Argentine civil-military dictatorship (1976–1983). His vice-presidential candidate, Victoria Villaruel, is the daughter of a military man who defended Argentina’s death squads and has proposed increasing the military budget, while at the same time supporting reductions in public spending.

Surprisingly, when pre-election polls showed a decline in support for Milei, he went on to win the primary elections in most of Argentina's provinces. Although only the candidates for the 22 October elections have been chosen so far, there is a strong likelihood that Milei will become the country’s future president. In the same elections, half of the Chamber of Deputies and 1/3 of the Senate will be renewed, as well as several provincial governors, provincial deputies and senators, and municipal mayors, among other positions. If the results of the primaries were repeated, it is estimated that Milei’s party would win some 40 national deputies (out of a total of 257) and 8 senators (out of 72).

The result of the PASO is the conclusion of a process that for at least a decade has seen a sustained deterioration in the living conditions of the population, in the context of increases in the precariousness of labour and in the financialization of life. Between 2011 and 2023 Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2011–2015, now vice-president for the Frente de Todxs), Mauricio Macri (2015–2019, leader of Cambiemos/Juntos por el Cambio) and Alberto Fernández (2019–2023, for the Frente de Todxs) governed. Throughout these three governments, the economy stagnated (GDP per capita fell by more than 10 percent), inflation accelerated to 120 percent per year in recent months, and external indebtedness multiplied (particularly since 2016). Between 2018 and 2019, Argentina returned to the orbit of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after receiving a loan of more than 45 billion dollars. Added to this, Argentina faced at least two generalized droughts (2018, 2023), the Covid-19 pandemic (2020–2021), and the impact of the war in Ukraine. In this context, precarious employment has expanded, and even in years of growth (e.g. 2022–2023), self-employment and wage employment without labour rights has grown rapidly, in most cases with wages and incomes close to or below the poverty line. Income poverty currently exceeds 40 percent of the population, and is more than 50 percent for children; while around 10 percent of the population is going hungry.

These are the material conditions that gave Milei a space to grow, particularly among the impoverished populations of the most precarious workers and self-employed. The social crisis is so great and the responses of the more traditional political forces so limited, that a fraction of the population decided to take a leap into the void, risking the rights built up over decades. More and more people seem to be convinced that the only possible way out is an individual one and that any collective alternative will only consolidate their impoverishment.

A growing fraction of precarious, informal, or self-employed workers no longer see the state as an instrument of collective progress. The discourse that the state can be the solution to difficulties clashes with the deterioration of the actions of the peripheral welfare state, expressed in a sustained fall in the quality of education and public health, and in a privatized public transport system and public services (electricity, gas, telecommunications, internet) that work worse and worse and are more and more expensive at the same time. Social policies are becoming increasingly extensive but at the same time insufficient. Pensioners and the beneficiaries of social programmes are seeing their incomes deteriorate in the face of a state that prioritises the repayment of foreign debt, the demands of the IMF, and the needs of big businesses that set prices without regard for the needs of the people.

In a war of attrition, the economic crisis and instability that we have been suffering for more than 10 years have operated as a mechanism for the disarticulation of popular resistance and favoured the general social implosion. The extended but insufficient social programmes act as a cushion that makes a 2001-style explosion more improbable. However, general dissatisfaction with living conditions creates conditions for a generalized rage that fails to be channelled as an organized social force in favour of a shift to the left of the political spectrum. The paradox is created in which Argentine capitalism causes the multiplication of inequalities, but the state, instead of compensating for or reducing them, appears impotent.

A new lost decade is coming to a close with a horizon of a renewed hegemonic stalemate. Unlike the political stalemate of the 1960s and 1970s, this time we perceive high levels of frustration and collective micro-violence within the framework of a questioned and fractured political system, incapable of channelling the yearning for social change for a better life, and a voracious capitalism that only offers more plunder and destruction. The overwhelming reality has led millions of people to vote in the belief that it is better to elect an “awful” candidate who has not governed yet (Milei) than the “known awful” alternatives (Massa, Bullrich). The outcome is not set in stone, but the depth of the economic crisis only augurs a deepening of the social and political crisis.

The traditional political forces (the spaces of Unión por la Patria, UxP, and Juntos por el Cambio, JxC) are fragmenting and no longer seem to operate as catalysts for some form of politicization, as they put themselves forward to lead a state that presents itself to everyone at once as the both solution and cause of all evils. Milei’s right-wing, ridiculous, and clownish but at the same time violent and authoritarian attitudes (one thinks of the “monsters” that Gramsci said appeared in periods of transition) attract the worst of the crisis: the tendency towards individualization, every man for himself, and isolation as a form of self-defence.

In this context, organized social movements face an electoral process with no agenda for change. The dominant alternatives are Milei’s insane capitalism, the promise of paradise through the endless adjustments of Juntos por el Cambio, and UxP’s myth of a serious capitalism. On the left of the political field, the traditional forces do not manage to produce collective discourses or practices of social resistance that are transversal (and not merely corporatist); the movements born of the neoliberal crisis oscillate between fragmentation, systemic integration, and political isolation. Not even the political coalitions with the greatest transformative potential (such as the eco-socio-territorial movements and feminism) have managed to overcome this process. The options on the left range from Grabois’ dead-end entryism (within UxP) to the correct but insufficient programme of a left that is confined within its self-imposed limits (FITU). If these forces do not manage to definitively open themselves up to the collective, street, and disruptive struggles of picketers, teachers, and health workers, native peoples, and popular forces organized in diverse resistance groups for the struggle over what is common sense, the auspicious popular rebellion will continue as a collective illusion, unfolding in a barren field without transforming into hope.

Within popular forces, we must prepare ourselves to confront the radicalization of the adjustment that seems to be the future that has already arrived. The social implosion (rather than a popular explosion) is the product of a deafening noise provoked by the empty promises of a political regime in decomposition. The vote for Milei not only marks discontent with the traditional political forces but also expresses the profound deterioration of collective consensus and conquests among the people. The daily life of millions is becoming unbearable and words and promises are not convincing anyone. It is time to go out and recover popular consciousness in the school of organization and struggle, listening (not preaching), in order to build a future in which — as Rosa Luxemburg said — we are all socially equal, humanly different, and totally free. We will not succeed in stopping the looming social crisis if we fail to organize resistance.

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