(Bloomberg) — Argentina’s business-friendly opposition faces a damaging breakup as its leadership splits over outsider ’s bid for president, a dramatic moment that threatens to reshape the country’s politics for years to come.
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Patricia Bullrich, a hardliner who led Juntos por el Cambio to defeat in the Oct. 22 first-round vote, signaled her support for Milei on Wednesday in a bid to weaken Economy Minister Sergio Massa ahead of next month’s runoff.
The move was negotiated behind closed doors with former President Mauricio Macri, who founded the coalition, without the backing of other party figures. Reaction was swift and severe.
“I’m embarrassed for them. What they have done is very grave,” Jujuy Governor Gerardo Morales, head of the bloc’s moderate faction, told reporters hours later.
Morales is among a cohort of 10 governors or governors-elect — the best-ever showing for the opposition at the state level — disavowing Bullrich’s move. Instead, they’re pledging neutrality in the showdown between Massa, the Peronist frontrunner, and Milei.
The disintegration of Juntos would fracture an already divided congress, making it harder for the next president to pass austerity measures sorely needed to get Argentina’s economy back on track. It also leaves the result of the Nov. 19 contest even more uncertain.
Massa has tacked to the center and is vowing to lead a national unity government, attempting to woo more moderate Juntos voters who may be concerned by a Milei victory. The libertarian economist, who promises to dollarize the economy and shut down the central bank, is likely to receive support from Bullrich’s faction.
“We’re watching the implosion of Juntos por el Cambio,” Juan Negri, a political scientist at Torcuato Di Tella University in Buenos Aires, said in an interview. “Milei is a disruptive figure that puts in question how Argentine politics were classically organized, which was Peronism and anti-Peronism or Kirchnerism and anti-Kirchnerism.”
Macri founded the coalition in 2015 with the aim of toppling the left-wing movement led by Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who is now vice president. He was successful and Juntos governed until 2019, when the Peronists were reelected amid a currency crisis and double-digit inflation.
In a radio interview Friday morning, Macri defended his decision to support Milei, arguing he’s the only leader who represents change. “Juntos por el Cambio isn’t broken, at least not the one I founded,” he said, accusing Morales and his faction of supporting Massa behind the party’s back.
Heading into this election cycle, the bloc was the clear favorite to regain power. Instead it was eliminated, with Massa vaulting into the lead and forcing a runoff.
Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, who Bullrich bested for the nomination, also went public with his disdain for her choice.
He said he was blindsided by the “secret” meeting between Milei, Bullrich and Macri. He called the upstart libertarian’s ideas “dangerous” and described a potential Milei government as a “leap into the void.” But Larreta also said the alternative would mean a return to populism.
“Every senator, deputy and leader we can maintain inside our coalition is a bigger brake to protect Argentines from either of these two bad alternatives,” he told reporters Wednesday evening.
With inflation now in triple digits and the economy lurching into its sixth recession in a decade, this year’s election should have been breeze for Juntos. Milei’s surprise victory in an August primary, however, knocked the coalition badly off course and it was unable to recover.
Bullrich won just 24% of the vote Sunday, coming in third behind Massa with 37% support and Milei winning 30%. By comparison, Macri was still able to secure 40% of the vote even in his defeat to the Peronists four years ago, with voters at the time blaming Juntos for their myriad economic woes.
Given the circumstances are even worse now, the opposition “had the chance to kick a penalty without a goalie and they threw the ball to the crowd,” Negri said.
(Updates with Macri comments in 10th paragraph.)
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Abhinav Thawait is a globe-trotting correspondent with a passion for international affairs. With a background in international relations, he offers a global perspective on the most pressing issues around the world. Abhinav’s curiosity takes his to the far corners of the earth, where he seeks to share untold stories and diverse viewpoints.