In the UK we can sometimes get carried away demonising our politicians. But let’s be honest neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer are going to frighten anyone, they are as scary as a cup of hot Horlicks at bedtime. Argentina of the other hand has decided to show the world what scary looks like.
Argentina by any measure should be one of the world’s richest countries. A large agricultural sector, large reserves of precious metals, oil, gas and a sizeable manufacturing base; yet somehow none of this seems to get itself in gear. The economy stands on the brink of recession, if not collapse. Default on foreign loans is looking likely unless the IMF can negotiate yet another rescue package. An estimated 40% of the population live below the poverty line. And all of this chaos is driven by the failure of the political class with mismanagement and corruption driving the country to the brink.
Against this background there is now a presidential election. The first round has taken place, and, on the 19 November, the second round will be decided between Sergio Massa and Javier Milei. The choice is one of extremes like a cash strapped Derek Hatton versus Donald Trump on speed.
With Sergio Massa the electorate sort of know what they are getting. As economic minister under Cristina Kirchner he has been managing the current crisis. His relationship with Kirchner and the Peronists has been an on off affair with Massa sometimes running his own party and sometimes coming back into the fold. Currently he’s back in and trying to square a circle with a party which goes from extreme left to extreme right, but which fundamentally is about patronage, and patronage needs money. He scored well in the first round by playing the voice of reason combined with some electoral bribes thrown in. However, election aside he will be continuity Peronism which is what has nobbled the country for the last couple of decades.
Javier Milei by contrast offers a total break with the past. He is appealing to a fed up electorate to clean up the nation, remove corruption and restore real growth to the economy. His weakness is this will require the electorate to sign up to pain and uncertainty. He is asking 46 million Argentines to sign up to an economic experiment. Describing himself as a libertarian Milei also has a harlequin set of social views which set him apart from the Peronist establishment. He is a wild card in a country which just might be sufficiently disillusioned to vote for radical change. Milei came second in the first round vote with 30%. This was not what was forecast, as the media was pushing, he would top the poll, but with a third of the votes up for grabs and the losing centre right candidate hinting her supporters (23%) should back Milei it may be a close election.
Argentina has a choice between more of the same corruption and decline or a painful adjustment to a different economy. Either way there is not much good news and much to have a good cry about.