“Today a stage in my political life ends,” Sergio Massa said this Sunday night surrounded by Peronist militancy. There were still a few minutes left before Argentina learned that the far-right Javier Milei had won the elections by 11 percentage points, but the panorama was already clear. Massa acknowledged his defeat, thanked the efforts of a coalition that came together to make him a competitive candidate despite being the minister of an economy in crisis, and announced that he would step aside. He could have been president, but now he won’t even be the leader of the opposition. Like his old enemy and last ally, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Massa will not have any position when Milei assumes the presidency on December 10. Both were the last two great leaders that Peronism had in the last 15 years, which now faces an unprecedented panorama: with the traditional right grouped after the emergence of Milei, the great popular movement of Argentina is racing against the clock to rearm itself.
Massa had been an emergency candidate. Leader of a party that he created to challenge Kirchnerism for power in 2015, the defeat against the liberal Mauricio Macri united them in the following elections to return Peronism to power. Massa was the leader of the third leg of the coalition that returned to the Government in 2019. President of the Chamber of Deputies, he was a comfortable spectator of the fight between the president, Alberto Fernández, and his vice president, Cristina Kirchner, until July In 2022 he assumed the Ministry of Economy to stop the bullets with his political back. He knew that it was his last chance, and he did not fail: a year after taking office as minister he was named presidential candidate almost as soon as the electoral lists closed.
Peronism needed “unity” to defeat Milei and an empowered traditional right. And Massa, that tough politician against crime, economically pragmatic and with business and foreign relations that the Kirchnerist militancy did not like, was anointed. Massa was the candidate for this campaign: with Argentina moving to the right, talking about adjusting state spending and arming the population in the face of insecurity, Peronism put its horse in the race.
Sergio Massa, during the speech in which he acknowledged his defeat at the polls, in Buenos Aires. ADRIANO MACHADO (REUTERS)
Only one man stood up to him. “Support yes, blank check no,” summed up one of the voices of that left-wing Peronism that had resisted him, the social leader Juan Grabois. Grabois challenged Massa in the primaries on behalf of Cristina Kirchner. He got his own million votes and opened one of the unknowns that surrounds Peronism today. Massa was going to have to maintain a delicate balance as president, between calling on the center-right in the “Unity Government” that he had proposed and accommodating that sector of his own that would scrutinize him. Defeated, his move to his side leaves Peronism headless at a crucial moment.
On paper, Peronism will serve as the main opposition party: it has retained the first minority in Congress. But no one will have the necessary majority. Milei will govern with his party as the third parliamentary force, and will need more than the support of his new partner, former President Macri, to impose his agenda. With much of the political arc against it even if Milei is opposite, what Peronism can do to be a competitive opposition is another unknown.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner votes in Río Gallegos, during the morning of November 19. STRINGER (REUTERS)
With Kirchner confined to her home in Patagonia, with Massa sowing uncertainty about her future, and with President Alberto Fernández without power of his own and out of the picture for almost a year, the great visible face of Peronism that faces this challenge will be governor of Buenos Aires, Axel Kicillof, who retained power in the most populated province of the country. Kicillof, Cristina Kirchner’s former Economy Minister, knows the challenge that lies ahead of him: for months he has been calling for people to stop “living off of Perón, Evita, Néstor and Cristina” to “build a new utopia.” “We have to compose a new song, not sing one that we all know,” he asked in September. “I am not dedicated to music, I am a militant and leader,” responded another of the strong men who will fight today, the son of the former president and national deputy, Máximo Kirchner.
Kicillof will govern the great bastion alone. While Kirchnerism – or what remains of it – entrenches itself in Buenos Aires, other provinces that depend on national tax collection will have no choice but to sit at Milei’s table. Among them are those that respond to the vice president, such as Tierra del Fuego, in the south, La Pampa, in the center, or Santiago del Estero, in the north. There are also those of federal Peronism, more conservative and opposed to that led by former President Kirchner for almost two decades, such as Córdoba, a large agro-export center converted into a bastion of Milei at the national level – or Salta, in the northern Andean region. Federal Peronism has tried for years to project its own leadership. Now you will have another chance.
“First the country, then the movement and then the men,” says one of the slogans on which General Juan Domingo Perón built his political movement. The country has just said no to them at the polls and the movement is in disarray. The men in charge of raising it are still a mystery.
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