Elections in Argentina: capitalist crisis shakes-up ruling class parties

On Sunday 22 October, Argentinians went to the polls to determine the next president. The elections occurred in the context of an increasingly desperate economic situation, with 40 percent of the country living in poverty, triple-digit inflation, and crippling state debt. This is the expression of the global crisis of capitalism in Argentina, a country with a backwards capitalist economy dependent on the export of primary materials.

Given these facts, it came as a surprise when Sergio Massa, the current Minister of Economy, finished the night with a lead in the votes. He will now go to a run-off on 19 November against the far-right libertarian candidate, Javier Milei.

While Sergio Massa, weakened from his handling of the accelerating economic crisis, still has a shot of becoming the next president of Argentina, the elections have revealed the pent-up frustration of the Argentinian working class with the traditional capitalist parties who have governed the country since the transition to democracy 40 years ago.

Massa and the Peronist-led Union por la Patria (Union for the Homeland) won 37 percent of the vote, although that is 3.8 million fewer votes than in the 2019 elections, when they won in the first round with 48 percent.

The real loser of the night was Patricia Bullrich, candidate for Juntos por el Cambio (Together for Change), the traditional right-wing coalition currently in opposition. With her loud appeals for law and order, balanced budgets, and scaremongering over Kirchnerism she was unable to muster more than 24 percent of the votes cast.

Javier Milei, and his new party La Libertad Avanza (Liberty Advances), won 30 percent of the vote in the first presidential election in which he participated, shaking up the electoral landscape. Milei has risen to become the dominant opposition figure by feeding off of the anger generated by the current crisis among the petty bourgeoisie, the unemployed, and backwards sections of the working class.

Milei, who spent most of his career as an academic follower of the Austrian School of Economics, has entered the political scene preaching a hyper-individualist ‘anarcho-capitalism’, smattered with social conservatism. But his support has less to do with approval for his programme of free market economics and dollarisation of Argentina’s economy, and more to do with his aggressive attacks on what he deems to be the country’s political “caste”.

PB Image Gobierno de la provincia de Santa Fe. Wikimedia CommonsThe real loser of the night was Patricia Bullrich / Image: Gobierno de la provincia de Santa Fe, Wikimedia Commons

He has gone as far as demagogically appropriating the slogan of the revolutionary uprising in 2001, “¡Que se vayan todos!” (Kick them all out!) Milei is no more able to kick out Argentina’s caste of rotten and corrupt politicians than he is able to come up with novel economic solutions. Behind his energetic attacks on the status quo lie the same policies of cuts and privatisations that were implemented during the military dictatorship with the economic plans of Martínez de Hoz, during presidency of Carlos Menem in the 1990s, and to a degree during the presidency of Mauricio Macri (2015-2019). And each time they had disastrous results for the working masses.

Another characteristic of this election period, which has received much less comment in the bourgeois press, is the historically low voter turnout in a country with mandatory voting. The final turnout of 77.6 percent marked an increase from the 70 percent turnout in the primary elections in August. Nevertheless, this was the second lowest participation rate since the return to democracy in 1983. There was little faith that any of the candidates running in these elections could solve the pressing problems facing Argentina, and many did not even deem it worth the effort to cast a vote.

Meanwhile, the Frente de Izquierda y de los Trabajadores – Unidad (Workers' Left Front – Unity, FIT-U), the electoral coalition of Argentina’s main left parties, won 2.7 percent in the presidential elections and added a fifth deputy to their parliamentary block. However, it has not been able to present itself as a viable revolutionary alternative to the millions of workers who stayed home rather than vote for any of the parties representing the capitalist system.

To connect on a revolutionary basis with the growing number of workers who have lost faith in the capitalist parties, the FIT-U must leave the track of adaptation to the bourgeois state apparatus and help the advanced workers and youth realise the need to build a mass revolutionary party.

Austerity ahead

Many commentators were predicting that Milei could win the general elections based on his unexpected ascent to first place in the primaries, with 30 percent support. Instead, he maintained almost exactly his vote share from the primaries while Massa pulled ahead, adding three million more votes to the total his coalition won two months ago. The increased turnout between the primaries and the general elections went almost entirely towards support for Union por la Patria.

Massa, as sitting Minister of Economy, has deployed a number of measures in the past months, such as eliminating taxes on the incomes of certain salaried workers, handouts, raising the education budget and the like, which have had an impact on some layers of workers.

Also at play in boosting support for Union por la Patria is a healthy instinct on the part of the workers, who are using whatever means they have at their disposal to stop the threat from the far right.

That many workers will vote for Massa to stop a candidate who proposes economic misery for the workers and unemployed, even extending the free market to human organs, is quite understandable. But we must warn that Massa is no alternative to the austerity in store for the working class. Argentina’s foreign debt now stands at $403 billion USD, over 88 percent of the country’s GDP. This debt is a suffocating weight on the whole national economy, rendering the state insolvent. Deep cuts are in order if these debts are to be paid off.

Massa Image Charly Diaz Azcue Comunicación Senado Wikimedia CommonsMany workers will vote for Massa to stop a candidate who proposes economic misery for the workers and unemployed / Image: Charly Diaz Azcue Comunicación Senado, Wikimedia Commons

In times of capitalist crisis, Peronism will not be able to afford reforms such as it has historically given, the memories of which are responsible for the support it enjoys among large sections of Argentina’s working class. But the Peronist candidate Massa looks to be a safe pair of hands for Argentinian capitalism and will apply the opposite programme.

Most of the serious representatives of the national bourgeoisie and foreign imperialism view Massa as their best bet. They regard him as the only candidate who has the political capital with the masses necessary to apply austerity without provoking an immediate response from the workers and their organisations.

International banks and financial institutions, and even Argentina’s reactionary Supreme Court have expressed their desire to see Massa win the elections. For months Massa has been looking for support from other political parties, calling on them to join him in a government of national unity – a government of all the exploiters united against the working class. His calls to this end have intensified since his victory in the first round.

Washington’s ambassador in Buenos Aires, Marc Stanley, has been calling for the very same thing since last year, viewing it as the ideal formation with which to push through anti-worker, anti-poor counter-reforms, and to ramp up the plundering of Argentina’s natural resources. From the point of view of the ruling class and imperialism, this perspective is obviously preferable to a highly unstable Milei government – the candidate who wielded a chainsaw at various points throughout his campaign, symbolising his approach to cutting back the state apparatus. Massa, by contrast, has proven himself to be a ‘man of the markets’, willing to compromise with the IMF.

Divisions at the top

Since the defeat of Juntos por el Cambio at the polls, some of its main leaders have wasted little time in moving to the camp of Javier Milei. The candidate Patricia Bullrich and ex-president Mauricio Macri have already given their public support to Milei. Milei has in turn offered Bullrich the position of Minister of Security, which she occupied in Macri’s government, despite accusing her during the campaign of planting bombs in kindergartens (a reference to Bullrich’s past as a militant in the Montoneros, a Peronist guerrilla organization, in the 1970s during the military dictatorship).

This episode sums up the rank hypocrisy of these capitalist politicians. Milei is eager to incorporate politicians from the very same rotten ‘caste’ that he has spent his campaign denouncing in a desperate bid to better his prospects in the run-off.

The position of Macri and Bullrich sets the stage for a potential split in Juntos por el Cambio, as contradictions grow between these more right-wing leaders of the coalition and others who would prefer to take a neutral position or to support Massa in the run-off election.

Milei Image Todo Noticias Wikimedia CommonsThe bourgeoisie wants to avoid the open class warfare that would accompany a Milei presidency / Image: Todo Noticias, Wikimedia Commons

In any case, the more intelligent members of the ruling class have no doubts that their interests are not served by someone as unpredictable as Milei. Milei has even threatened to break off relations with Brazil and China because he “doesn’t make deals with communists”. This is the last thing that the ruling class wants, as Brazil and China are the top two destinations for Argentinian exports.

Furthermore, the bourgeoisie wants to avoid the open class warfare that would accompany a Milei presidency. Argentina has powerful trade unions which organise important layers of the proletariat, although they are controlled by a thick bureaucratic top crust, which seeks to contain the movement of the working class and maintain governability. Milei’s provocations would rapidly spur this apparatus into action.

While most of the trade union leaders lined up in support of Massa, it is likely that even if he wins, the working class will be forced into action. The workers may well push aside this restraining bureaucracy in the battle to defend their historical conquests and standard of living against the austerity being prepared by the candidate of ‘national unity’.

For communists, it is clear that we can give no support to either of these opportunist, capitalist candidates. Instead of sowing illusions in a would-be reformist with no reforms to give, we need to focus all our efforts on building a revolutionary party, which can lead the working class in the battles to come.

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