Latin America Advisor

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Who Has the Edge in Argentina’s Race for President?

Photo of Milei Economy Minister Sergio Massa (pictured) won the most votes in the first round of Argentina’s presidential election on Sunday. He faces libertarian Javier Milei in a runoff next month. //

Argentina’s ruling Peronist coalition exceeded expectations in Sunday’s presidential election in Argentina as Economy Minister Sergio Massa emerged as the top vote-getter, with far-right libertarian Javier Milei coming in second. With no candidate garnering enough votes to win the election outright, Massa and Milei now head to a runoff on Nov. 19. What are the main reasons behind Sunday’s result, and to what can Massa attribute his strong showing? What factors between now and the second round will decide the election? What’s at stake for Argentines as they choose next month between Massa and Milei?

Juan Cruz Díaz, managing director at Cefeidas Group in Buenos Aires: “Given the three-way tie of the primaries, a runoff was likely. However, Sergio Massa’s performance was unexpected considering the sharp economic deterioration that took place before the election. After coming third in August, the economy minister successfully mobilized governors, mayors and trade unions to exploit the Peronist movement’s historical territorial capillarity and regain control of the provinces lost in the primaries. This was complemented by a solid narrative in which he filled the existing vacuum at the center of the political spectrum and portrayed himself as a moderate and consensual candidate. His narrative also capitalized on the existing fear in many sectors of society of Milei and his proposals. Facing the runoff, the 33.34 percent of people who voted for neither Massa nor Milei will play a key role, especially the six million who voted for Patricia Bullrich. Although the Juntos por el Cambio (JxC) candidate is ideologically closer to Milei, her votes will not necessarily be automatically transferred to him. Milei has frequently lashed out at JxC, and his antiestablishment rhetoric does not go down well with the coalition’s more moderate sectors. The economic situation will also be critical, since if it worsens, it will be more difficult for Massa to defend his administration and easier for Milei to attack him. The next challenge for both candidates will be to consolidate the votes they won in the general election and use the post-election momentum to further expand their vote share.”

Kezia McKeague, regional director at McLarty Associates: “Massa confounded expectations for a sitting economy minister unable to tame rampant inflation. An astute politician, he relied on Peronism’s capacity to mobilize the electorate as well as a raft of pre-election cash handouts and tax breaks. Most importantly, he benefited from a divided opposition, which led to the third-place finish for Patricia Bullrich of the Juntos por el Cambio coalition, once the heavy favorite to win the presidency. Massa’s performance was mediocre by Peronism’s historical standards, but his efforts to occupy the political center—and foment fears of Javier Milei’s free-market policies and conservative social agenda in a country known for clientelist politics—proved effective against two candidates on the right. On Nov. 19, much will depend on the choice made by Juntos por el Cambio voters in a context of uncertainty about the future of the center-right coalition (and a real risk of fragmentation). Massa has made a direct appeal to the Radical party, and he also enjoys close personal relationships with PRO leaders like Horacio Rodríguez Larreta. Massa will continue to compete for centrist voters, as seen by recent rhetoric about his plan for a ‘national unity government.’ Likewise, Milei is making a direct pitch to the defeated anti-Peronist coalition, commenting in his election-night speech that ‘all of us who want a change have to work together.’ Former President Mauricio Macri had clearly signaled support for Milei in the scenario of a Bullrich loss in the first round, and Bullrich herself refrained from criticizing the libertarian candidate in her concession speech, even as she directly attacked Massa. The ultimate second-round result is uncertain and likely to be closely contested. What is at stake depends on whom you ask in a highly polarized country—some would say macroeconomic stability and others democratic governance itself.”

Benjamin Gedan, director of the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center: “Javier Milei was underestimated before Argentina’s primaries, oversold before the first round and is now being underestimated yet again. All along, he has been a flawed candidate. He has little experience, a small team, and a polarizing style. His colorful quirks, from his moppy hair to his cloned dogs, suggest a welcome departure from business-as-usual politics. But his eccentric platform is less appealing to Argentines who do not share Milei’s opposition to abortion, commitment to gun ownership, denial of climate change or disdain for Pope Francis. Milei’s promise to ditch the peso is intriguing in a country where everyone is already hooked on dollars. But his plan to ‘chainsaw’ the federal budget strikes fear in the hearts of voters who are struggling to ‘get to the end of the month,’ as they say in Argentina, and who are not eager to see prices skyrocket for water, electricity, natural gas, buses and trains. Nevertheless, Milei is still the front-runner. The Peronist government is deeply unpopular and wildly unsuccessful. Its candidate, Finance Minister Sergio Massa, is running the economy into the ground. Though he finished first on Sunday, the combined votes of the two opposition candidates far exceeded his total. When Massa announced his candidacy, his center-right opponent, Patricia Bullrich, concluded, ‘the arsonist wants to be the firefighter.’ Milei will make a similar argument. In the first debate, Massa apologized for the government’s record, but did not explain how he would perform any better as president. Some analysts say Sunday’s results show the ‘voto miedo’ (fear vote) is overtaking the ‘voto bronco’ (protest vote). Massa is betting on it, but only because he has no other path to the presidency.”

Horacio Verbitsky, director of in Argentina: “Massa’s victory on Sunday was as surprising as Milei’s in the August primaries. The excessiveness of libertarian Milei’s proposals, but also those conservative Patricia Bullrich, explain why Economy Minister Massa prevailed at a time that annualized inflation is around 150 percent. Bullrich promised to exterminate Kirchnerism, and in one of her commercials showed a high security prison that would bear the name of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Milei proposed breaking relations with China, leaving Mercosur, moving the Argentine embassy to Jerusalem, privatizing streets and rivers, and buying and selling organs and babies. His ideological mentor Alberto Benegas Lynch Jr. proposed suspending relations with the Vatican. Milei had said that Pope Francis sympathized with the communists. The candidate’s image advisor also announced a bill that would allow men to renounce paternity. He cited his grandmother as a source of authority, according to whom some women puncture condoms in order to entrap men. Faced with these absurdities, the support for Massa is a defensive reflection of Argentina’s democracy, which turns 40 this year. The result of the runoff, on Nov. 19, will depend on what happens with the Together for Change vote. The UCR and those who voted for Horacio Rodríguez Larreta in the primary could accept Massa’s offer of national unity. The followers of former President Mauricio Macrì would lean toward Milei. In any case, the political landscape would be substantially different from the current one.”

Mariano Machado, principal analyst for the Americas at Verisk Maplecroft: “The latest plot twist demonstrates that the Peronist political machinery is alive and well and can effectively mobilize voters in key traditional bastions when it provides economic incentives. However, what stands out is Massa’s ability to decouple himself from the extremely poor performance of the sitting administration, all while carefully positioning himself as the ‘last man standing’ against Javier Milei’s explicitly brash policy approaches that appear to have put him at odds with moderate voters. Looking ahead, besides the country’s overall appetite for change, the key determining factor of the result will be which candidate is a better negotiator. Massa’s track record would appear to give him the upper hand, and that is what he tried to offer with the unity government proposal. Milei faces the challenge of unifying the non-Peronist electoral base, while fending off Massa’s tactics. This push-and-pull dynamics will exacerbate internal divisions within Juntos por el Cambio, heightening the risk of finally tearing apart the (so far) main opposition coalition. A runoff is a completely different election, and the most volatile electoral process since 1983 could still pack surprises. While it is true that in the first round, the societal mood shied away from radical change, in the second round, pro-change voters may shift to Milei to oust Kirchnerism. One thing is certain: no matter who wins in November, macroeconomic corrections will take place in the coming months, and the determining variable will be the ability of the new president to manage their speed, depth and impact."

Carlos Fara, president of Fara Veggetti in Buenos Aires: “What mainly happened is that Massa managed to get more people to vote who had not voted in the primaries, or who had voted blank or for other forces, these were votes disappointed with the management of Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. That put a ceiling on Milei, who had shown himself to be competitive in that segment in the primaries. Massa managed through his economic measures and his leadership attributes to show that he was up to the task, to face an extreme economic crisis like the one that Argentina is going through. What happened on Sunday was not a plebiscite on Massa’s economic management, but rather on the expectations of who can get Argentina out of the crisis that is clearly the main problem, basically fear. There is either more fear of Massa managing the economy or more fear of Milei due to his lack of experience and his extreme positions on symbolically sensitive issues for society. Is experience more important, compared to Milei’s uncertainty and extremist attitudes? We saw some of that in Sunday’s election, but everything will depend on the factors that come to fruition in November, whether it is the economic crisis or extreme positions. Annoyance and fear come into play: annoyance with Kirchnerism and Alberto Fernández’s government, plus the weight of 140 percent inflation and the economic crisis versus the fear that someone without experience governs with extreme ideas about the resolution of the economic crisis and other sensitive issues for Argentines."

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