By Mary Anastasia O’Grady
When an unsustainable welfare state crumbles under its own weight, the population may not realize it’s being buried alive.
Argentina is flirting with this fate as it heads to a runoff presidential election on Nov. 19. The vote comes amid inflation expected to end the year at an annual rate of 180%. The economy is in recession and 40% of the population lives below the poverty line. Nevertheless, polls have the country’s Peronist economy minister, Sergio Massa, running neck-and-neck with his rival, Congressman Javier Milei.
Six months ago, a victory for the incumbent party in this race was widely considered impossible. But Mr. Massa is a slick politician and the center-right has been divided. So it’s now a horse race.
Both candidates have to fight negative images. But Mr. Massa, who beat all his opponents in the Oct. 22 first round with 37% of the vote, may have the more difficult challenge. The country seems to want change. He’s Mr. Continuity.
Mr. Milei has the better shot but is by no means a shoo-in. He wasn’t able to win more than 30% in either the August primary or in the first-round election. Third-place finisher Patricia Bullrich of the center-right Together for Change coalition, who won 24% in the first round, has thrown her support behind Mr. Milei. But it’s uncertain how many of her followers will join her.
Only weeks ago many center-right voters swore to abstain if the temperamental Mr. Milei, known for ugly rants against his opponents, made it to the runoff. Yet the thought of Mr. Massa in the Casa Rosada is making some of them think twice.
Mr. Massa works for the government of Peronist President Alberto Fernández. But his bigger liability may be the notoriously corrupt and influential Vice President Cristina Kirchner.
The former hard-left president (2007-15) and her late husband, Néstor Kirchner, also a former president (2003-07), launched their national political careers in 2002 when peso convertibility at one-to-one with the dollar came undone and the country defaulted.
The crisis unleashed an anticapitalist fury, and the lefty Kirchners smelled opportunity. As misery mounted and mobs blocked streets, they consolidated their power. Over time they politicized the judiciary and destroyed property rights and the independence of the central bank. They clamped down on the press by muscling advertisers and controlling newsprint. Their antidemocratic populism became known as kirchnerismo.
President Mauricio Macri (2015-19) attempted to restore the rule of law. Mrs. Kirchner was investigated. In December she was convicted of fraud and sentenced to six years in prison. She remains free due to her official status. As long as her case is on appeal, she isn’t expected to serve prison time.
If Mr. Massa wins, Argentines have good reason to fear that the economy won’t improve. Crony capitalism, punishing export taxes, inflationary fiscal policy and capital controls are second nature to him. But the risk to the country’s frail democratic institutions with a Massa presidency may be more worrisome. Asking his political tribe to reject police-state tactics like the surveillance of adversaries is asking a tiger to lose his stripes. The same goes for interference with the courts and a foreign policy aimed at placating the region’s dictators.
Mr. Milei presents the opposite risk. The progressive claim that he’s a threat to democracy is fearmongering, for two reasons. First, because his ideology is all about decreasing state power and increasing the freedom of Argentines to run their own lives and to think independently. Second, because he is almost certain to be a weak president.
Mr. Milei is an advocate for the rights of the individual. His social views are consistent with his libertarianism. He’s antiabortion because the unborn also have civil liberties; families should have choice in education. He opposes identity politics. These ideas stir panic among progressives, as does his skepticism about statist solutions to climate change.
None of this will matter if he can’t stabilize an economy near implosion. He’s telling the press that Ms. Bullrich’s backing has come without conditions. But in December, when the new Congress is sworn in, his Liberty Advances party will have six seats of 72 in the Senate and 38 of 257 in the House. He’s passionate about his vision for the country, but if he’s to govern effectively he will have to work with moderates who won’t always agree with him.
The next government will inherit enormous challenges, and it’s tempting to think Mr. Massa should be made to eat his own cooking. Even a President Milei may not be able to avoid a mega-crisis. But if Argentines are unwilling to take a chance on the outsider, they’re signing up for more of the same.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com
Mary Anastasia O’Grady is an Opinion Columnist, writes «The Americas,» a weekly column on politics, economics and business in Latin America and Canada that appears every Monday in the Journal. Ms. O’Grady joined the paper in August 1995 and became a senior editorial page writer in December 1999. She was appointed an editorial board member in November 2005. She is also a member of the board of directors of the Indianapolis-based Liberty Fund. Energiesnet.com does not necessarily share these views.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), on November 12, 2023. All comments posted and published on Petroleumworld, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of Petroleumworld.
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EnergiesNet.com 11 13 2023